With a disability that makes walking difficult and running almost impossible, McKenna Dahl is hardly an obvious candidate for athletic excellence.
But come September, the 20-year-old Dahl will be in Rio de Janeiro as a member of the 2016 United States Paralympic team. As one of five members of the U.S. shooting squad, she will compete at the same venue used by Olympians from around the world just a few weeks earlier.
And, yes, she is thrilled almost beyond words.
Dahl was named to the U.S. team several weeks ago and the announcement, she said, “was overwhelming.” She was at a shooting competition in Germany when word came out, and along with teammates “we all just sat down and cried. Then I sent (the announcement) to my parents. My dad was at work and my mom was at the store, and I got both of them crying, too.”
In recent years, she went on, “I’ve been working so hard to better myself, and the fact that I was named to the team meant that everything I’d done was worth it. I’d proved to the U.S. that I was good enough to represent the country at the Paralympic Games.”
A 2014 graduate of Lakewood High School, Dahl was born with amyoplasia arthrogryposis, a condition in which newborns lack muscle mass and have joint deformities. She took up shooting when she was 12 because, in large part, many other mainstream sports were unrealistic for her.
“I have all of my major muscle groups, but everything that’s supposed to be in there isn’t there,” she explained. “I can walk, but at longer distances I just get tired a lot faster than other people would. … I’ve done about 2 miles and it’s like I’m done right there.”
For that reason, sports such as basketball, soccer and cross country were out. But Dahl was not only a good shooter right from the start, she would in time become exceptional.
“(Shooting) is an individual sport,” she said, “so you can become as good as you want to be, depending on how much drive and passion you have.”
Dahl, who has been competing at national and international events for years, moved to Colorado one week after high school graduation to live at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Later that summer she competed at the Paralympic World Championships in Suhl, Germany, and she placed well enough to qualify for a spot on the U.S. team at the 2016 Paralympics.
Unfortunately, that spot was not automatically hers. Though her chances were good, her place on the team was not official until the recent announcement.
According to Bob Foth, the national Paralympic shooting coach, Dahl “has made the steadiest incremental progress of any athlete I’ve ever seen or worked with. She just keeps chipping away at it and she doesn’t have many setbacks. For the most part, she just keeps getting a little better each time she shoots.”
Looking ahead to Rio de Janeiro, “I think she’s got a reasonable chance (to medal),” he said. “Right now, if you look at everything on paper, he’s just a little out from where you’d call her a medal favorite. But she just keeps (making) progress, and it looks to me like she’ll be really ready to compete when September finally rolls around.
“She’s one of my favorite athletes,” Foth added. “She’s a tough, hard-working kid with a great attitude toward the sport, and I’m really hopeful that she’ll do well in Rio.”
Dahl, who competes in air rifle, is classified as SH2, which means she has an upper-body disability that affects her ability to support the rifle on her own. Still, she competes in both the “prone” and “standing” positions. Paralympic athletes always sit to shoot, but in “prone” they are allowed to use a table for elbow support, while in “standing” they are not.
At the Olympic Training Center, Dahl lives in a dormitory with other U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes. Even some athletes who live elsewhere spend time at the center for training. Among them, swimmer Michael Phelps, the winner of 22 Olympic medals, including 18 golds. Seeing Phelps pass by recently, Dahl said, “was pretty cool.”
In all, she added, shooting “has opened so many doors that I never could’ve imagined before.” Moreover, she expects the opportunity to compete in Rio de Janeiro “is going to be even more overwhelming and humbling than the team announcement was.”
“I think the excitement is still kicking in,” she said. “I’ve been shooting since I was 12, so it’s been eight years that I’ve been working toward this. I don’t even know how to describe it, but I think it’s going to be absolutely amazing.”