By Dan O’Connell, Loyola University Maryland ’76
Just weeks after watching Katie Ledecky and Michael Phelps make swimming history at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil, Brian Loeffler, head coach of men’s and women’s swimming and diving at Loyola University Maryland, found himself at the same pool in Rio.
Loeffler, a 1991 graduate of Loyola, has been coaching Team USA in the Paralympic Games for nearly a decade. He accompanied five athletes who trained together at Loyola for the 2016 Games: seniors McKenzie Coan and Alyssa Gialamas, Cortney Jordan, M.A.T. ’16, Navy veteran Brad Snyder, and Elizabeth Smith.
“We had nine swims a week,” Gialamas said, describing the 11-week training program before the team left for Rio. “Each of our sessions was two hours long, and we swam twice a day on Tuesday and Thursday. We also spent time in the Fitness and Aquatic Center working out.”
Gialamas has a disease called arthrogryposis that causes congenital joint contractures. She started swimming at age 3. While competing in the 2012 Paralympics in London, she met Loeffler for the first time. He was coaching for Team USA and worked with Gialamas during the event. When she returned home to Somerville, IL after the competition, she decided to look into applying to Loyola.
Soon after visiting the University’s Baltimore, MD campus, she fell in love with the school. “Loyola is my home away from home now,” she said.
At the Rio Paralympics, Gialamas swam the 50-meter backstroke, finishing fifth. She also competed in the 50-, 100-, and 200-meter freestyle events.
“I was a much better swimmer in Rio than I was in London,” she said. “In 2012 I was very young, and my goal was just to get there. This time, I wanted to be competitive—and I was.”
A Swimmer’s Path to Loyola
Coan’s swimming career started with aquatic therapy in 2001 following her diagnosis with osteogenesis imperfecta (brittle bone disease).
She too competed in the 2012 Paralympic Games in London—and, like Gialamas, it was there that she met Loeffler. When it came to college, Coan decided to attend Loyola and swim under his direction.
When Coan and her teammates arrived in Rio, no one had any idea how much their lives were about to change. Loeffler told her there was a possibility she could win a gold medal or two, but Coan wasn’t sure that could happen. It didn’t take long for the Clarksville, GA, native to experience her greatest moment.
Competing in the 50-meter freestyle, Coan said she only had hopes of finishing among the leaders. She won the gold for the event—and broke the Paralympic record with a time of 32.42 seconds.
“When I won the race, I was pretty surprised and happy,” Coan recalled. “Then I looked at the scoreboard and saw that I broke the record. I was stunned! I kept looking up there to see if there was a mistake.”
Coan would go on to secure two more gold medals over the next few days, in the 100- and 400-meter freestyles—as well as earn a silver for her part in Team USA’s 100-meter freestyle relay.
“Each of the gold medals is special to me,” Coan said. “I can remember each gold medal ceremony clearly.”
Teammate and training partner Jordan, who earned her Master of Arts in Teaching from Loyola’s School of Education in 2016, swam alongside Coan in the 100- and 400-meter freestyles, claiming silver in both events—in addition to the silver and bronze medals she won for the 50-meter butterfly and the 200-meter medley, respectively.
“It was really cool to be swimming in the same venue as the Olympics. We were all joking that Michael Phelps warmed up the pool for us,” Coan said. “The reception we received in Rio was amazing. No matter who was competing, the crowds were very enthusiastic and supportive. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before.”
Coan’s remarkable performance in Rio made her a local celebrity when she returned to Maryland. With Snyder, she threw out the first pitch at a Baltimore Orioles’ baseball game and attended a White House reception where she met then-President Barack Obama.
A Whole New World
Team USA claimed 40 gold, 44 silver, and 31 bronze medals at the 2016 Paralympic Games. Of those medals, Coach Loeffler’s swimmers took home six gold, six silver, and two bronze.
“It was a very rewarding experience for all of us,” said Loeffler, who was honored in 2014 as the National Paralympic Coach of the Year by the U.S. Olympic Committee.
“I will always be grateful for the opportunities that he has given me,” Coan said of her coach. “I think Coach Loeffler is one of the best Paralympic coaches in the world, and I know that I would never have been so successful without his guidance. He has also provided Alyssa and me with the chance to compete on a Division I swimming team. We owe so much to him.”
Loeffler is excited about the future for Paralympic swimming. He noted that the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC), a regional athletic conference, is interested in organizing a Paralympic championship competition after its regular championship meet—and he hopes that the NCAA will broaden its championships to add similar competitions.
Loeffler said, “Due to our success, Loyola is being seen as a diverse university that provides opportunities for everyone, and we are proud of that.”