The 2012 Paralympic Games were a new experience for McKenzie Coan and Alyssa Gialamas. Now, the Loyola University swimmers know what it will take to compete against the best athletes from around the world.
During the United States Paralympic team trials in Charlotte, N.C., Coan and Gialamas earned their second consecutive trip to the Paralympic Games. The Loyola duo will head to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, with Team USA for the 2016 Games Sept. 7-18.
Coan and Gialamas are among 21 female and 10 male swimmers who will compete for the United States. Approximately 4,350 athletes from more than 160 countries are expected to participate in the 2016 Games.
"I was in a little bit of disbelief," said Coan in describing her reaction to a repeat trip to the Paralympics. "It's an absolute dream come true to be there for a second time."
During the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, England, Coan posted a sixth-place finish in the 400-meter event, while Gialamas took fifth place at 200 meters. Coincidentally, the London Paralympics trip eventually led both Coan and Gialamas to Loyola.
"The first time that I ever heard about Loyola was during the  Games," said Coan, a native of Clarkesville, Ga. "One of my teammates was wearing a shirt with the school's name on it. After I reached out to [Loyola head coach] Brian Loeffler, I made two campus visits, and that's all it took for me. I've gotten the opportunity to swim at the Division I level, and Brian's dedication to us has been amazing."
Coan and Gialamas will again compete for medals at the 2016 Games. Coan is scheduled to swim in five individual events -- the 50-, 100- and 400-meter freestyle, the 100-meter backstroke and the 50-meter butterfly. She also may earn a spot on the 400-meter freestyle relay team, but the final lineup for that event won't be determined until after the Games begin.
"To be able to go to London and get that experience was a huge advantage," Coan said. "Now, I have a game plan on how to prepare. It was the most taxing thing, both physically and mentally, that I've ever been through. I learned that you have to be smart about how you're treating your body."
Gialamas will swim in four individual events during the Rio Games -- the 50-, 100- and 200-meter freestyle and the 50-meter backstroke. She is the American record-holder in each of those events.
Gialamas, who hails from the Chicago suburb of Naperville, Ill., said her experience at the London Games has boosted her confidence entering her second Paralympics.
"There are so many logistics that you don't know [on your first trip]," said Gialamas, who won't start her junior year at Loyola until after the conclusion of the Paralympic Games Sept. 18. "It was an absolutely crazy environment, and I didn't really know anyone. But I won't be as overwhelmed as I was in London. It will be cool to be the veteran on our team."
Both swimmers are mentored by Loeffler, who also coaches the duo at Loyola. Loeffler, who is entering his 21st season at the helm of the Loyola program, also coaches three other athletes who qualified for the Paralympic Games in Cortney Jordan, Brad Snyder and Elizabeth Smith.
Dedication and fortitude have been essential to the success of both Loyola swimmers. When she was an infant, Coan was diagnosed with osteogenesis imperfecta, a genetic disorder that can cause bones to fracture. But that didn't deter Coan, who began swimming at the age of 4, from an active athletic life.
"What makes swimming so special is that I feel free in the water," said Coan, a rising junior at Loyola. "It makes everything, and everyone, equal."
Coan wasn't content with being a world-class swimmer. She passed on her knowledge to younger athletes through her involvement as a junior swim coach for the Waves Swim Team in Cummings, Ga.
"I did swimming instruction for years, starting in the eighth grade until I left for Loyola," Coan said. "I got to work with kids that had mental and physical disabilities. When I come back home, I get to see how they've progressed."
Gialamas was born with arthrogryposis, a disorder that causes joint contractures in two or more areas of the body. She was 3 years old when she started swimming.
"The water was the one place where I could do exactly what I wanted," Gialamas said. "I came into swimming not knowing what to expect, and I grew to love it."
Those early days in the pool led Gialamas to a swimming career on the international stage. Despite all of her success, she still was emotional after learning she made Team USA for a second time.
"I didn't know whether I was going to make it to London," Gialamas said. "Even though I expected to make the team this time, I still cried."