5 Incredible Parathletes to Get to Know One Year Out from the 2020 Paralympic Games

The 2020 Paralympic Games are officially one year away — and some of America's most incredible athletes are preparing to hopefully get their big shot on the world stage. Here's who to follow throughout the next 12 months!

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Photo: Courtesy
01 of 10

McKenzie Coan, Swimming, 23

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U.S. Olympic Committee

What does it mean to you to compete in the Paralympics?

Competing in the Paralympic Games gives myself and other athletes with a disability the chance to go out and show the entire world that we aren’t limited or defined by our disabilities, and that we’re elite-level athletes who train day in and day out just like our Olympic counterparts. One of my favorite sayings is “we’re all equal in the water” and that really sums up why I love to compete in Paralympic sport, because the water is where I found my freedom and the confidence to pursue my dreams.

What has been the hardest moment in your journey to the Paralympics?

In my journey, the hardest part has been training through the broken bones that I routinely experience as a result of my condition, osteogensis imperfecta. Throughout my life, I’ve broken somewhere between 80 to 100 bones. People along the way have told me that I’m too fragile to compete or pursue my dreams, but with the support of my family and coaches, I’ve always found a way to push past the fractures and pain to reach and achieve at the highest level of Paralympic sport, sometimes competing with broken bones. These hardships, as a result of my condition, have made me not only a stronger competitor but also a stronger human being.

02 of 10

McKenzie Coan, Swimming, 23

MCKENZIE Coan

What are you looking forward to at the Games?

It’s always exciting to be at the Games and race the best of the best. I feel a tremendous amount of pride being out there, wearing the stars and stripes and racing for my country. I’m excited to go out and race with everything I have to hopefully be back on top of the podium for Team USA and hopefully inspire the next generation of Paralympic athletes to pursue their dreams.

I also can’t wait to be in the Paralympic village! I had the opportunity to visit Tokyo last year and I got to see some of the sites for the Games and I was amazed!

What advice would you give other young athletes in your sport?

If I could tell young athletes one thing it would be that the only limits that exist are the ones you put in front of yourself, and that you should never allow someone else to dictate what you’re capable of. As long as you are willing to work hard, persevere through adversity and pour your heart into your craft, then there’s nothing that you can’t achieve in life.

03 of 10

Megan Blunk, Wheelchair Basketball, 29

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Courtesy

What does it mean to you to compete in the Paralympics?

Competing in the Paralympics means more to me than I think I could ever put into words. The 2016 Paralympics took place eight years after the accident that not only took away my ability to walk … but also came close to taking away my entire identity, my belief in myself and my ability to do so many things within the societal constraints of what others believed is and is not possible for people with disabilities. Therefore, those eight years consisted of breaking down barriers within my own mind and the minds of others as they pertained to my own ability and showing myself that my life was far from over ... because of this, competing in the Paralympics holds a meaning far more in depth than words could say.

I was 18 years old when I was the passenger in a motorcycle accident that paralyzed me from the waist down. It was in July of 2008, and I remember watching the Olympics on TV while in the hospital. I had been an athlete my entire life and I couldn’t stop the tears that were rolling down my face as I watched everything that I could no longer do. I felt so scared for my future. I have often thought about what it could have done for me if the Paralympics had been on TV that year ... how I would have seen everything that could do and all of the ways in which not only was my life far from over … but a stronger, better version of me was only just beginning. Instead, I spent a year in the dark, feeling alone, heartbroken, and lost as I dealt with constant looks of pity from those around me thinking the same sad things about my new life with a disability that I was feeling. I was slowly losing hope that it was going to be okay.

But I am thankful for that year because what I soon learned was that all of that pain I was feeling was simply fueling the fire inside of me that was just waiting to be lit. The fire that I would need to overcome any and all of the stigma, the stereotypes and, above all, the self-doubt that I had in-fact been fighting my entire life, long before the accident, that self-doubt that turned out to be the one and only disability in my life.

When I first learned about wheelchair basketball, I knew right away that it was my second chance at life … and when I then learned about the Paralympics … it became my light at the end of that very dark tunnel.

04 of 10

Megan Blunk, Wheelchair Basketball, 29

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Courtesy

What are you looking forward to at the games?

Before I think about what I am looking forward to at the games, I have to think about and do what it takes to make the Paralympic team. But if I do make the team … I will be looking forward to, once again, showing myself exactly what I am capable of when I put my mind to it. I am looking forward to pushing myself to be my very best and to face my fears at the highest level.

What advice would you give other young athletes in your sport?

The advice I would give other young athletes in my sport would be simply to never give up. I would tell them that even if you don’t end up where you thought you would be, the journey will teach you so much about yourself, about others and about life in ways you never could have imagined and all of those times you feel like giving up … if you push through, you will be rewarded every time.

05 of 10

Jessica Long, Swimming, 27

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Peter Bick

What does it mean to you to compete in the Paralympics?

It means everything to me! It represents years and years of hard work, sacrifice, sweat, and a few tears. It is the culmination of hours of practice, and moments I truly didn’t know if I’d finish my swim sets because of exhaustion and my body fighting me on every lap. When you get to the Paralympic Village and then the competition pool, you recognize that all those days of training were for this moment. To me, the Paralympic Games represent believing in myself in those small daily moments so I can ultimately achieve the impossible.

What has been the hardest moment in your journey to the Paralympics?

I’ve competed in four Paralympic Games so far and they all have been incredible, but right before the 2012 Paralympics I got word that my biological Russian family was found. I was adopted from Russia as a baby and had always thought I’d look for my mom one day, then suddenly I was being sent pictures and emails of an entire family and I didn’t know what to believe. It shook me up and I didn’t know how to feel. I tried to block it out while I competed, channeling that into my nine races and trying to focus on what I could control.

06 of 10

Jessica Long, Swimming, 27

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Peter Bick

What are you looking forward to at the Games?

I am looking forward to the excitement I feel when I step up on the blocks and get ready to race. There’s this feeling that settles over me of all the hard work being done and leading to this; it’s now trusting the process and swimming my heart out. I’m also looking forward to the ongoing support from my family and friends who are already making travel plans to come to Tokyo so they can cheer me on. Knowing they are watching gives me that little push to touch the wall first.

What advice would you give other young athletes in your sport?

My advice to new and upcoming swimmers is to set your goals high and be consistent. Believe in your abilities and then practice, practice, practice! I’ve noticed it takes hard work, determination, and community to fulfill ANY dream. So get the technique right, but remember it’s about having a strong mind and teammates that won’t let you give up as well. Keep reworking and building onto your goals — step by step — and don’t worry about what the process looks like for anyone else around you. This is your journey, and you only have one, so keep giving it your all.

07 of 10

Oksana Masters, Road Cycling, 30

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Peter Bick

What does it mean to you to compete in the Paralympics?

I love watching the growth of the Paralympic movement and to be a part of the Paralympic Games gives me the opportunity to follow my athletic dreams while proving to society what the human spirit and body can truly do. To me the best part of competing at the Paralympic Games is representing something that is so much bigger than yourself, I get to represent Team USA and the U.S. Paralympic team, adoptees, single parent families, Ukraine, and so much more.

What has been the hardest moment in your journey to the Paralympics?

Staying healthy, physically and mentally during injuries has been challenging on my Paralympics journey. One of the biggest struggles is balancing my Nordic season and summer season, and competing at both at high levels. I am lucky to have a great support team behind me from my family, to my sponsors, who help make it possible to be a winter and summer athlete.

08 of 10

Oksana Masters, Road Cycling, 30

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Taylor Baucom/The Players’ Tribune

What are you looking forward to at the Games?

Hopefully lots of sushi and the chance soak in the culture of Japan. I’m really looking forward to representing my country and my sport to the best of my abilities and inspiring more people to get out and ride bikes.

What advice would you give other young athletes in your sport?

The most important thing is have fun and enjoy it. There’s so much freedom in riding a bike. there will be challenging days with either equipment malfunctions, flat tires or things beyond your control. Stay focused on what you can control and maximize those moments.

09 of 10

David Brown, Track and Field, 26

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Courtesy

What does it mean to you to compete in the Paralympics?

It’s a great honor and privilege. Not everybody has an opportunity to represent their country. If I had my sight, I would be in the military, but as a Paralympian I can still wear the red, white and blue, and go out there and fight for my country in a different way through sport.

What has been the hardest moment in your journey to the Paralympics?

The most difficult part of my journey as a Paralympian has been to overcome myself and my own nerves. This year, I’m competing in an event that I haven’t raced on a major stage in three years – the 400-meters – so I’m pretty nervous about that. I’m having to overcome my own nerves and be able to push through and not let my own self stand in my way.

10 of 10

David Brown, Track and Field, 26

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Courtesy

What are you looking forward to at the Games?

I’m looking forward to the competition. I’m a competitor so I look forward to competing, representing my country again, wearing the red, white, and blue and hopefully bringing home another gold medal.

What advice would you give other young athletes in your sport?

The advice that I would give would be to not give up on yourself. Not everybody is going to have the same goal, dream or drive that you have but as long as you have that passion and purpose, you can push through. Not everybody is going to see your dream or your vision but it’s up to you to see it and bring it to fruition.

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