Three U.S. Paralympians under 25 years old turned heads with strong medal performances in Rio de Janeiro
A youth movement helped propel the United States to its highest Paralympic Games medal count in more than 20 years last summer in Rio de Janeiro.
Team USA hauled in 115 medals at the 2016 Rio Paralympic Summer Games — the most since the 1996 Atlanta Paralympics.
While some of the most decorated athletes included veterans and household names such as Tatyana McFadden in track and Jessica Long in swimming, there were other young up-and-comers who surprised the field and made a mark for themselves in Paralympic sport for years to come.
Two of them just hit their early 20s, and one hasn’t even finished high school yet. They’re the future for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics and beyond.
At age 20 and only two years into her competitive career, McKenna Dahl became the first American woman to win a Paralympic shooting medal when she took bronze in the mixed 10-meter air rifle prone SH2 event in Rio at the Centro Nacional de Tiro Esportivo.
Ukraine’s Vasyl Kovalchuk won the event with a Paralympic finals record 211.7 points, followed by Korea’s Geunsoo Kim (211.2) and Dahl (189.5).
“It was a big move in showing disabled females that you can really do whatever you put your mind to, and you don’t have to let anyone hold you back,” Dahl says. “Rio was so much fun, I want to do it again in Tokyo.”
Just eight months after making her first final at an International Paralympic Committee (IPC) shooting event, Dahl (Arlington, Wash.) found herself in the Rio final thanks to an impressive qualification round that put her in third place. She was the youngest competitor and only female among the eight finalists, and it was her mental steadiness, controlled heartbeat and checked nerves, that carried her to the podium in a composed manner.
“As soon as I came off the line from the final, I moved back and was sitting by my coach who was congratulating me, and I looked over at my parents when they realized I was going to win a medal, and they almost got me crying,” Dahl says.
Her medal was the first for the U.S. in shooting since Dan Jordan won silver in 2004; Roger Withrow is the only American to have won gold, winning the air rifle prone event in 1984.
Dahl, who was born with amyoplasia arthrogryposis in her left hand and both of her feet, causing her muscles not to form properly, was originally inspired to take up shooting by Ernie Butler, Paralyzed Veterans of America’s director of sports and recreation. She will graduate from DeVry University with a business and technology management degree in May, and then plans to continue her shooting career at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.
With the U.S. Paralympic team having grown from two to eight shooting athletes in the last Paralympic cycle, Dahl wants to help that number continue to increase in the future. She’s already looking ahead to competing at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics and perhaps another Games after that, hoping to improve her aim in the air rifle standing event so she can crack the final round in multiple disciplines the next time around.
Dahl also says Rio 2016 inspired her to want to coach the next generation of Paralympic Shooting Para sport athletes one day. Seeing her own progression from the grassroots to the Paralympic level has invigorated her, and now she wants to help others make that progression and to coach them.