‘Harder than being paralyzed’: Mallory Weggemann mounts comeback for third Paralympics

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Mallory Weggemann exited the pool after the first heat of the Rio Paralympic 400m freestyle and looked at her left arm. It was blue.

“And it was cold,” she said. “I wasn’t getting any circulation.”

After winning the 50m free in her Paralympic debut in 2012, Weggemann qualified for seven individual events in Rio. She left Brazil with zero medals.

Just getting to the Games was an accomplishment. On March 5, 2014, the swimmer had what she called a horrific fall to a shower floor when her bench collapsed from underneath her in a New York City accessible hotel room.

She suffered permanent nerve damage and lost both the grip in her left hand and about 75 percent of function in that arm. She considered retirement while forced out of the pool for several months. But she returned and swam through the pain.

As difficult as the last two years of that Paralympic cycle had been, she was not prepared for the first two years of the Tokyo 2020 path.

“I would say it was harder than being paralyzed,” Weggemann said, referring to 2008, when she lost movement from the waist down while receiving epidural injections to treat shingles. She was 18 years old.

Weggemann did not swim competitively from the end of the Rio Games until September. She expected to take a break after her second Paralympics, but not two years.

Her time away from the pool began on her terms. Weggemann wanted to walk at her Twin Cities wedding on Dec. 30, 2016, so she adjusted training to full-on dry land. Ninety-minute sessions with physical therapists, using leg braces and forearm crutches.

“And skirts that would cover my feet,” she said. “Mimic what it would be like with a wedding dress.” 

Her dad, Chris, the last person in her family to see her walk in 2008, and her fiance, Jeremy Snyder, whom she met in 2011, joined her to practice. Weggemann was determined to stride down the aisle with Chris and share a first dance with Jeremy, eye to eye for essentially the first time, to Ray LaMontagne‘s “You are the Best Thing.”

She did.

“It wasn’t so much of, in order to feel like a bride, I needed to be standing or any of that,” she said. “It was a night that just reminded me that, despite everything, life goes on. Time does heal everything. When I was injured, I never knew if I would get married, and then I had that day. It reminded me that I was surrounded by love. Wheelchair or no wheelchair, despite the circumstances that we all face in life, we all have the ability to persevere and continue to build a beautiful and bright future. That’s what that night resembled for me.”

Weggemann’s plan was to return to swimming at the start of 2017. Her medical team said she could not. Weggemann’s left arm, the one that turned blue in Rio and that she linked with her father down her wedding aisle, needed a series of tests, procedures and appointments.

“With a spinal cord injury, you use your arms for everything out of the pool, too,” she said. “My arms just were never, truly getting a break. We needed to kind of halt and get a break.”

In June 2017, she underwent a six-hour surgery removing two muscles and a rib in her upper chest. That December, another muscle was detached from her left side. At one point, Jeremy slept for two weeks on a cot next to her hospital bed.

Yet again, Weggemann was faced with the uncertainty of how her body would respond to significant loss. She went 18 months between swimming but never gave up on the sport. Even as her medical team scratched their heads for predictions.

“One thing that I’ve constantly held onto is, as a Paralympic athlete, we’re all in this sport because we’ve had to adapt,” she said. “I mean, every single athlete in the Paralympic Movement has what I’d call the war story. We’ve all had things happen in our lives, whether we were born with things or whether we acquired things later on. We all had circumstance. For me, that helped give me some sanity in a really, really difficult time.

“I just had to understand that, as my body changed, it heightened my paralysis, too. I was used to being paralyzed with two strong arms. When I didn’t have two strong arms anymore, my paralysis seemed worse to me.”

Weggemann also lost the ability to drive for that year and a half out of the pool. She relied on loved ones to do more for her than at any point since she was paralyzed nearly a decade earlier. It wasn’t until March that she could train. Not until July that she could do it long enough to be considered a workout. She raced for the first time in September before winning her first 50m free since the 2012 Paralympics at last weekend’s nationals.

“What’s made it easier now is now I have a black line to go to,” Weggemann said of the pool. “The black line is where I’ve done all of my healing.”

Weggemann said most of the national team was at the U.S. Championships, where she swam the splash and dash in 33.06 seconds. It was nearly two seconds slower than her Paralympic gold time but three hundredths faster than what she clocked in pain in Rio. She’s looking forward to the 2019 World Championships trials in April.

“This weekend was really cool to realize that I have a lot of work still to do, but I can still get up and race,” Weggemann said.

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Leanne Smith leads U.S. gold medalists at para swim worlds

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Leanne Smith has never competed at a Paralympics. Came into this week’s world championships with zero world medals. But she leaves London with three individual golds, most for any American, one year before the Tokyo Games.

Smith, 21, won the 150m individual medley, 50m breaststroke and 100m freestyle in her classification, all in American record times. The last two titles came on the final day of the seven-day meet on Sunday.

Smith, diagnosed with a rare neurological muscle disease called dystonia in January 2012, began swimming in 2013. By 2017, she broke a world record and then debuted at the world championships with a best individual finish of sixth.

The U.S. finished with 35 total medals and 14 golds, ranking sixth in the overall standings. Ukraine, usually strong at the Paralympics, led the way with 55 medals. Full results are here.

Jessica Long, the second-most-decorated U.S. Paralympian in history with 23 medals, earned six this week — five silvers and a bronze — to give her 52 career world championships medals.

Two-time Paralympian Mallory Weggemann earned two golds this week, giving her 15 world titles in three appearances (her others being in 2009 and 2010).

She won 50m titles in the butterfly and freestyle. Weggemann won a 2012 Paralympic 50m free title but was fortunate just to make it back for Rio after a 2014 accident that she said was harder to come back from than her teenage paralysis. She left Rio with no medals but a resolve to return for a third Games in Tokyo.

“I’m two seconds away from bursting into tears,” Weggemann said after winning the first of her two golds in the 50m fly, according to U.S. Paralympics. “I had a really rough go these past three years since Rio, so to finally be back after busting my butt to be here, and to be here in London of all places, is absolutely incredible.”

Fellow Rio Paralympians McKenzie Coan and Robert Griswold added two golds a piece.

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Heimana Reynolds wins skateboard world title, nears an Olympic goal from age 10

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In February 2009, a 10-year-old Heimana Reynolds was profiled by his local NBC TV station on Oahu.

“My goal is to become a professional skateboarder and compete in the X Games and the Olympics,” he said, according to the report.

Skateboarding would not be added to the Olympics for another seven years. But here Reynolds is, age 21, having just won the world title in park, one of two skateboarding events that debut at the Games in Tokyo.

Reynolds, who wasn’t named to the four-man U.S. national team in March, consolidated his lead in the Olympic qualification rankings by prevailing over a pair of Brazilians in Sao Paulo on Sunday.

A shirtless Reynolds scored 88 points in the final, beating Luis Francisco (85.50) and Pedro Quintas (85).

No more than three Americans can make the Olympic team in the event, which will make it difficult if three-time Olympic halfpipe snowboarding champion Shaun White decides to continue his skateboarding pursuit. White was the sixth-best American, bowing out in the semifinals in 13th place on Saturday in just his second contest since returning to competitive skating last year.

Back to Reynolds. He grew up on the North Shore and attended the Punahou School, where Barack Obama is the most famous alum. His first name is Tahitian, reportedly referring to the power of Jesus’ crown of thorns.

Reynolds, the son of a surfer, proved a natural on land. After pre-teen media profiles, he blossomed into a world silver medalist last year. He won an Olympic qualifier in China in July to take the top spot in the Olympic rankings despite a best career X Games finish of sixth.

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