‘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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Bryan brothers to retire at 2020 U.S. Open, don’t plan on Olympics

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Bob and Mike Bryan said they will retire after the 2020 U.S. Open, ending a tennis career that’s included a men’s record 16 Grand Slam doubles titles together.

They also don’t plan to play at the Tokyo Olympics, their manager later said in an email.

The twins are 41 years old, having spent more than half their lives as professionals.

“A part of us, feels like, is dying,” Bob Bryan said on Tennis Channel. “But we’re really clear about this decision. It’s going to be great to have a finish line.”

Mike said that in 2020 they will play all the events they “really love,” including all four Grand Slams and American tournaments. The Olympics weren’t mentioned.

Rather, they will see how they’re feeling midway through the year, they said on the Tennis.com podcast.

The Bryans earned doubles gold at the 2012 London Games but withdrew from the Rio Olympics six days before the Opening Ceremony. They cited making their family’s health a “top priority” and later said Zika virus concerns were “a very small part of” the decision.

The Bryans own 118 titles overall but nearly ended their partnership after Bob underwent hip surgery a year ago. He rejoined Mike this season, reaching the Australian Open quarterfinals and winning two ATP doubles titles.

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A century later, Naomi Osaka, Kei Nishikori can bring Japan Olympic tennis to forefront

Naomi Osaka, Kei Nishikori
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When Naomi Osaka and Kei Nishikori take the courts at the Tokyo Olympics, perhaps together, they will be doing so 100 years after tennis players won Japan’s first Olympic medals in any sport.

Tennis is not usually one of the handful of marquee competitions at the Games, in part because it is one of the sports whose biggest event is not the Games themselves.

“We have been playing for these Grand Slams, and I think that’s why we train for,” Nishikori said at the U.S. Open in August, when asked to compare the meaning of winning one of tennis’ four annual majors to earning a medal at a home Olympics. “That’s going to be the biggest goal to winning Grand Slams.”

Yet the term “Grand Slam” had not been conceived — for golf or tennis — at the time of the 1920 Antwerp Games. There, Ichiya Kumagae earned silvers in singles and doubles with Seiichiro Kashio to become the first Japanese Olympic medalists.

Kumagae was Japan’s first notable international tennis player, reaching the 1918 U.S. Open semifinals (then called the U.S. National Championships) and beating Bill Tilden in the final of the 1919 Great Lakes Championships.

Kumagae, born in 1890, had not seen a tennis racket or ball until his 20s, according to Roger W. Ohnsorg‘s “The First Forty Years of American Tennis.”

“He came here to America in 1916, the possessor of a wonderful forehand drive and nothing else,” Tilden wrote in “The Art of Lawn Tennis.” Kumagae was listed by Ohnsorg as 5 feet, 3 inches, 134 pounds and requiring glasses at all times. Later in 1922, Kumagae’s engagement to the daughter of a wealthy politician was published as a news brief in The New York Times.

Nearly a century later, Nishikori and Osaka brought more Japanese tennis breakthroughs. Nishikori became the first Asian man to reach a Grand Slam singles final at the 2014 U.S. Open. Last year, Osaka became the first Japanese singles player to win a Grand Slam, also at the U.S. Open.

This past June, Japan’s annual Central Research sports survey (1,227 people, age 20+) put Nishikori and Osaka as its respondents’ fourth- and sixth-favorite athletes, past or present. Baseball players Ichiro (retired), Shohei Ohtani and Shigeo Nagashima (long retired) and figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu rounded out the top five.

Osaka’s U.S. Open title was voted the top sports moment of Emperor Akihito’s reign from 1989 to April 30, beating Ichiro’s retirement and Hanyu’s repeat Olympic crown in PyeongChang. Perhaps there was some recency bias.

Akatsuki Uchida, a tennis journalist from Japan, said that Nishikori’s U.S. Open final was a bigger moment for Japanese tennis than Osaka’s win over Serena Williams, though.

“Tennis at that time [in 2014] was not broadcast in Japan,” she said at the U.S. Open. “Media coverage of tennis was decreasing before Kei made that final. For most of Japanese, not tennis fans, but ordinary people, it came from out of nowhere. … He became like an overnight sensation. Since then, the situation of tennis in Japan changed dramatically.

“If [Osaka] wins the title before Kei won the title here, it could have been way bigger, but since Kei made the final before Naomi, it made Naomi’s achievement, still a big deal, less surprising.”

Another key difference: Nishikori spent the majority of his childhood in Japan, while Osaka’s family, with a Haitian father and Japanese mother, moved to the U.S. when she was 3 years old.

Osaka has dual citizenship, but Japanese law requires one to be chosen over the other by the 22nd birthday. Osaka turned 22 last month, before which she confirmed what most had assumed, that she picked Japan.

Uchida was unsure whether Osaka and Nishikori could propel tennis at the Tokyo Games into a greater spotlight among 33 total sports.

“But if Kei and Naomi played mixed doubles, that would be a big thing,” she said.

Nishikori has already reportedly said he plans to enter singles and doubles in Tokyo, the latter with Ben McLachlan, Japan’s top doubles player. McLachlan was born in New Zealand and in 2017 switched representation to Japan, his mother’s birth nation.

But Nishikori did not rule out adding mixed doubles.

“Very hot, very humid, playing singles and two doubles, I don’t know if I can,” he said before the U.S. Open. “I haven’t think too much yet, honestly. I don’t know. I will talk to Naomi later.”

Nishikori smiled as he brought up Osaka’s name at the end of his answer to a question that didn’t mention her. Later in the tournament, Osaka was told Nishikori’s thoughts.

“I would definitely play with him,” said Osaka, who in 2016 was the highest-ranked eligible player not to make the Rio Olympic field. “I just — I would actually need to practice doubles for the first time in my life. Because you cannot play mixed doubles with Kei Nishikori and lose in the first round of the Olympics in Tokyo. That would be the biggest — like, I would cry. I would actually cry for losing a doubles match. Yeah, definitely I think that that would be so, like, historic in a way. And I would love to do it, but I need to practice my doubles.”

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