Mallory Weggemann, two-time Paralympian, reflects on the anniversary of becoming a Paralympic swimming champion at the 2012 London Games as she announces her book, Limitless: The Power of Hope and Resilience To Overcome Circumstance, which will be released on March 2, 2021.
A sudden moment of impact. A blink of an eye. A split second in time. Our lives can change that quickly and that unexpectedly.
As humans, we thrive on routine, planning, preparing and visualizing a specific outcome. But what do we do when, despite the best laid plans, life intervenes?
It was Jan. 21, 2008, and I was one week into my second semester of college. Then, without warning and without regard for any of my dreams, my world changed. Rather than returning to class, I was admitted to the hospital. For weeks, my days were filled with words like “paralysis,” “spinal cord injury,” and “wheelchair.” The life I had laid out for myself had vanished, and I was left looking towards a future filled with more questions than answers.
Yet in the years that followed, I found the freedom that comes from finding the strength to rise despite all circumstances – the resilience that comes from the knowledge that even within the depths of heartbreak, there is hope. I found the courage to dream again.
And what was that dream? I wanted to give the most challenging day of my life a purpose, a reason, a meaning. I didn’t want my story simply to be that I was the girl who walked into a clinic for back pain at the age of 18 and never walked out. Instead I was determined to find a way not only to live as a woman with a spinal cord injury, but to thrive in a way that would prove that it isn’t our circumstances that define who we are, but rather how we choose to react.
Slowly, my perspective began to shift. Rather than starting my days asking, “Why me?” in a way that stemmed from victimhood, I began flipping the narrative and asking “Why me?” as a way to empower myself to create significance out of that moment. I chose to allow each day to push me towards who I was meant to become rather than pull me back into who I once was.
Less than three months after my paralysis, I returned to the sport I knew and loved as a child. I began swimming again. It was as if the black line that trails the bottom of the pool lead me forward, serving as a bridge that linked me to my past while carrying me towards my future.
It was there in the water that I felt most alive – placing one hand in front of the other as I formed a freestyle stroke and looking down at the comforting black line beneath me. As the days turned to weeks and then into years, the black line served as my sanctuary, the place where I found the strength to redefine the limitations that the world seemed to want to put on me. It was where I found the confidence to understand that other people’s perception of my worth and ability wasn’t a reflection of me but of them. It was where I found the wisdom to recognize that my wheelchair wasn’t something that needed to be “normalized” or excused away as something unfortunate; it was a part of me and the very vehicle that would take me toward my greatest dreams. The black line no longer represented an escape from my deepest grief; now it represented my greatest joy. I was no longer swimming to survive, I was fighting for the Paralympic podium. The water was – and is – where I felt limitless. Physically, mentally and spiritually.
In my forthcoming memoir, Limitless: The Power of Hope and Resilience To Overcome Circumstance (Thomas Nelson; March 2, 2021), I describe my experience on Sept. 2, 2012, at the London Aquatics Centre as a proud member of Team USA at the Paralympic Games. With each stroke of the 50m freestyle, I felt flashes of my journey – the pain and loss, but also the love and hope. As my hand reached in for the finish, I lifted my head to see one light on the starting block above me. First place, and a new Paralympic record.
“A few minutes later,” I write:
As I took the medal stand and lowered my head, the weight of the medal surprised me in all the best ways. It was heavy, but not in a way that felt like a burden; it was more a sense of substance and gravitas, the weight of experience and victory. My family, Jimbo, and Jay, finally all together in one place, stood to my right. To my left were my teammates. The community of people who had filled my life with color and refused to give up on me when I wanted to give up on myself were all a part of this moment. I was surrounded by people who showed me how to rise above even the worst disappointments and setbacks when I couldn’t imagine how it was possible. We are only as good as the people we surround ourselves with, and I knew I was surrounded by the very best.
As the flag rose and the anthem began to play, I couldn’t help but be struck by the incredible symbolism of it all: complete heartbreak turned into to a beautiful victory. My Paralympic journey matched my personal journey: Choosing to rise above despite the circumstances; hope helping me see that regardless of how dark the days feel, there is brightness on the horizon; love encompassing me, reminding me I am never alone; faith anchoring me in a deep-rooted belief that good always overcomes; resilience giving me the strength to show up and fight another day. In that moment, I felt four years come full circle.
Eight years later, Sept. 2 still serves as a reminder to me of the power of our dreams to carry us from our darkest of days into the light. Today I celebrate the anniversary of a journey that started in the depths of heartbreak and brought me to one of the greatest moments of my life. I honor the young woman back in 2008, who looked at her future with uncertainty and fear, and chose to create something beautiful. But beyond that personal significance, today is also a reminder to all of us that through the power of hope and resilience we all hold the power to unleash our own limitless potential within.
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