‘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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Usain Bolt, sleep-deprived dad and budding cyclist, would unretire if the man in charge called

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Usain Bolt isn’t doing much running these days, but he would unretire if one person asked: longtime coach Glen Mills.

“If my coach came back and told me, let’s do this, I will, because I believe so much in my coach,” Bolt said this week in a video interview with Variety. “So I know if he says we’re going to do this, I know it’s possible. Give Glen Mills a call, and I’ll be back.”

Mills coached Bolt to eight Olympic titles and world records in the 100m (9.58 seconds) and 200m (19.19) before the Jamaican legend retired in 2017. Bolt has occasionally visited the track since, which may have been a mistake.

“My coach gets too excited when I come to the track,” Bolt said, “so I stay away.”

Bolt’s days are now spent as a father to daughter Olympia Lightning Bolt, born in May and introduced to the world via social media on Tuesday. Bolt said parenting is harder than breaking a world record.

“I got sick the first week because I was scared to fall asleep,” said Bolt, adding that he has been spit up on a few times. “So I stayed up at night just watching her because I’m a heavy sleeper. But I’ve learned that I’m going to wake. I’m going to get up no matter what. I’m getting better, and I’m learning.”

Bolt said he was unaware that Serena Williams‘ 2-year-old daughter is named Olympia (as a middle name, but she goes by Olympia) until this week’s reveal. His girlfriend, Kasi Bennett, came up with the name.

“My girlfriend, I told her, I think you’re putting a little bit of pressure on her to name her Olympia,” said Bolt, who previously said he would not encourage his child to take up sprinting. “But, we’ll see, I’m not going to force her to do anything.”

In retirement, Bolt has been seen doing a step class, riding a Peloton and playing professional soccer. Lately, he’s been road cycling with friends, upping the mileage every week.

“I have a newfound respect for cyclists because you see the Tour de France, they make it look easy. It’s not,” Bolt said.

Bolt expressed disappointment with the Olympic postponement to 2021, even though he’s not competing anymore. He does hope to be in Tokyo in some capacity. He found a silver lining.

“The only good thing about is that I actually get to take my daughter next year if the world gets back,” he said. “One of my moments is to have my first born just to walk on the track with me. That’s something that I always thought about.”

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British gymnastics stars speak up about abuse amid investigation

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Decorated British gymnasts Becky and Ellie Downie spoke out about specific abuses they’ve experienced in the sport, becoming the latest athletes to come forward this week.

The Downie sisters, in social media posts on Thursday, said they’ve seen and experienced an “unsafe attitude to young girls’ weight, and the resulting mental health issues” and “dangerous consequences of over-training, which frequently was the norm, for fear of punishment or deselection.”

The comments came two days after British Gymnastics announced it launched an independent review into allegations of abuse in the sport. Before that, former British gymnasts said they were assaulted, bullied or abused by coaches.

“The behaviors we have heard about in recent days are completely contrary to our standards of safe coaching and have no place in our sport,” British Gymnastics chief executive Jane Allen said Tuesday. “It is clear that gymnasts did not feel they could raise their concerns to British Gymnastics, and it is vital that an independent review helps us better understand why so we can remove any barriers as quickly as possible.”

The Downie sisters are Olympians and world championships medalists.

“Over the past few days we’ve been watching our former teammates and friends bravely sharing their stories, and we can’t sit by and not offer support for them by sharing our own experiences,” they posted with the caption, “Our Story.” “Speaking out is something we’ve both felt we really needed to do for a long time now, but in truth, we’ve been afraid to do so.”

Becky Downie, the 2019 World silver medalist on uneven bars, said she was overtrained “to the point of physical breakdown” many times.

She said she was called “mentally weak” for speaking up at a national team camp and later suffered an ankle injury as a result of the unsafe training approaches. Downie required a fourth surgery on the ankle.

Ellie Downie, the 2019 World bronze medalist on vault, said she’s been made to feel ashamed of her weight for almost her entire career. That included a nutritionist telling her to submit daily photos of her in her underwear and everything she ate to ensure she wasn’t lying about her diet.

She said she was told at a national camp to lose six kilograms (13 pounds). If she hadn’t “made a dent” within two weeks, “there’d be consequences.”

The sisters said gymnasts were weighed regularly.

“We all know off by heart the weight of a bottle of water, and consequently eating and drinking the night before weigh day wasn’t worth the risk,” Ellie wrote. “To this day we still hide food for the fear of it being found.”

The Downies said there has been change since Becky Downie spoke up in 2018 about unsafe training, including the discontinuation of routine weigh-ins.

“We’re aware our contribution raises more troubling issues the sport must confront, but we truly hope it will contribute to positive change,” they wrote. “What’s clear from speaking to many different gymnasts from all over the world, this is a gymnastics culture problem, as opposed to just a national one.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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