They say if you love something, let it go. And if it comes back to you, it’s meant to be. For Paralympic athlete, Mallory Weggemann — who had endured physical setbacks that made swimming almost out of the question — her love for the sport never went away.
In 2008, Weggemann received a routine epidural injection for her back pain that left her permanently paralyzed from the waist down. It was a big physical and emotional blow for Weggemann, but she was determined to get back in the pool to compete. It took just three months for the then-18-year-old to return to the water, and less than 16 months to break her first set of world records in 2009. She even earned the 2011 ESPY for Best Female Athlete with a Disability. And her long list of achievements didn’t end there.
Despite being reclassified and competing in only seven swimming events instead of the nine she trained for, Weggemann went on to win a gold medal in the 50-meter freestyle and bronze in a 4×100 relay in the 2012 Paralympic Games.
Yet after fighting back from physical adversity, Weggemann faced another setback. A freak accident in March 2014 caused permanent nerve damage to her left arm. Swimming became harder than ever — almost impossible, it seemed. Still, the 27-year-old was determined to keep at it.
“Swimming quickly became my safe haven. It was my sanctuary, and it gave me a renewed zest for life that I had been searching for since I had been paralyzed,” she told ESPN in a recent interview.
The Rio 2016 Paralympics isn’t the only thing Weggemann looks forward to this year. In December, she plans to walk down the aisle to marry her fiancé. Yes, walk — using carbon fiber leg braces.
But before Weggemann suits up for her final two races (the 200-meter individual and the 4×100-meter relay) at Rio’s 2016 Paralympic Games, the Head & Shoulders sponsored athlete chatted with Daily Burn about her return to the pool post-accident, the lessons she’s learned in the water and the best part of her journey to the Paralympics.
Meet Paralympian Mallory Weggemann
What did your swimming career look like before the accident?
Growing up, I became involved in the sport of swimming through my two older sisters who swam competitively. I love swimming because I love the feeling of being in the water, the freedom that it brings, the consistency of the black line at the bottom of the pool and most of all, the community. I always loved watching the Games but I never thought that I would ever become half the athlete that I have become!
And it took just three months to get back in the water after being paralyzed? How’d you do it?
Following my injury, I assumed my days of swimming were over. I didn’t think I would ever return to the pool. But in April of 2008, just a few months after my paralysis, my sister saw a newspaper article about the 2008 trials for the Beijing Paralympic Games for swimming, which was the first time that I’d heard about them. After going to the trials as a spectator I was motivated to get back into the water again — or to at least try to swim again. Once I returned to the water, just shy of three months following my paralysis, I fell in love with the sport all over again. Each day I went to the pool, I felt more and more alive. I began to feel more and more like myself.
“Instead of being a scary place, the water saved me. It brought me back to life.”
How has swimming helped you adjust to your paralysis?
Swimming has taught me so many lessons over the years. I was swimmer before my paralysis and afterward, so it has been one of the few constants in my life. Swimming has given me freedom and independence, and taught me how to beat the odds — even when they have appeared insurmountable. When I am in the pool, no one can tell me I cannot swim or I am not strong. I prove to people every day that I am strong, and I continue to grow stronger every day.
What has your journey been like recovering after the accident and restarting your swimming career?
Returning to the water following my paralysis in 2008 was very difficult at first. I had grown up loving the pool and was a competitive swimmer in high school. After my paralysis, I thought my days in the water were over. I was apprehensive about returning but overcame that fear, and, as it turns out, it was the best decision I ever made. Instead of being a scary place, the water saved me. It brought me back to life. For me, it was the one place that I could allow myself to move, freely and independently.
Based on your drive and commitment, it’s clear why Head & Shoulders tapped you as a face of their Shoulders of Greatness campaign. Why was the partnership such an important way to tell your story of overcoming adversity?
I am so honored and grateful to be a face of the “Shoulders of Greatness” campaign with Head & Shoulders. Because of my paralysis, I have discovered a whole community of people with disabilities who are achieving greatness, and I have become an advocate for disability rights. My story of how I’ve been able to become a professional athlete following my paralysis has resonated with literally thousands of people around the world.
Each day, we have the ability to be brave, to be courageous, to rise above and to continue to redefine our limitations. Where I believe bravery steps in is when we decide that regardless of what our disability may be, we are not going to let it stop us from living, from aspiring to achieve our goals and from continuing to push ourselves one step further. The “Shoulders of Greatness” campaign allows me the opportunity to share my story with others. And hopefully it will inspire others to achieve greatness in their own way.
What will you do differently as you head to the Paralympic Games for the second time?
Going into the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, my perspective was completely different than it was going into London. This time around I have already done the one thing I didn’t think was possible. I returned from injury; I fought through an injury that unfortunately left permanent damage and I made my second Paralympic Games. Now, I realize that I have nothing to prove. I have won Paralympic Gold. I have come back from injury and made my second Games. I have done what for so long I thought was impossible.
Now I get to go into competition and prepare to race all seven individual events and do so while wearing the flag on my cap as I represent Team USA alongside my teammates. And I get to just enjoy the process. Whatever happens here in Rio doesn’t define me. Do I want to defend my gold medal? Of course I do! Do I want to win more medals and add to the collection? Absolutely! Although, do I have to in order to make this all worth it? No. This journey is about defying the odds; it is about overcoming but most of all, it is about the power of love. Now, we get to go out and watch all that hard work come together and just simply have fun doing what I love most: racing.
“When I found out that I qualified for Rio it brought tears to my eyes. I had achieved what I thought might not happen.”
What races are you looking forward to the most in Rio?
First of all, just qualifying for Rio was a huge accomplishment and honor for me. Following the Paralympic Games in London, I fell and suffered permanent damage to my arm, so in addition to my paralysis, I had to overcome another injury. I was not sure I would be healthy enough to qualify in a very competitive class of swimmers, but I did! I actually qualified for seven individual events. If I had to pick a race, I probably would say that I am looking forward to the 50-meter freestyle the most. It is the race I won in London four years ago, and I would love to defend my Paralympic gold medal.
How do the qualifications for swimming competitions differ in the Paralympics?
The qualification system for swimming competitions is very complex in the Paralympics because there is a classification system for swimmers based on their level of physical abilities. Currently, I compete in the S8 class. A level 1 is for athletes with most impairment, and a level 10 is for the least amount.
What have been the best and worst parts of your journey to the Paralympics?
The best part was the day that I found out I qualified to compete in the Paralympics because my journey to Rio was so difficult. My arm injury has been, far and beyond, one of the hardest challenges I have been through. There were days when my arm was so painful that I thought I was going to have to retire. I wasn’t ready for that so I kept battling every day to regain my strength. When I found out that I qualified for Rio it brought tears to my eyes. I had achieved what I thought might not happen. So I would have to say that the worst part of my journey was my arm injury, but the best part was overcoming it and qualifying for the Paralympics! For me, Rio has been all about the journey and enjoying what I love to do most – race!