Mallory Weggemann

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Mallory Weggemann recalls personal triumph, Paralympic gold in new book

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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.

Mallory WeggemannIt 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.

MORE: How the Olympics, Paralympics intersected over time

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Mallory Weggemann reflects on past trauma to face today’s difficult times

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Paralympic swimming champion Mallory Weggemann has been out of the water for so long that the pond in her backyard has become enticing.

“When the snow melts, maybe we can jump in there,” the Minnesotan joked on “Distanced Training” with Jac Collinsworth.

It’s been nearly a month since Weggemann last swam. She makes do with a range of gym equipment brought into her garage, including a bench that allows her to make swim strokes on land. She taped a black line to the floor to make it as close as possible to the real thing.

Weggemann’s situation these days is similar to many Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls. Her life story, though, is one of a kind.

On Jan. 21, 2008, Weggemann lost movement from the waist down while receiving epidural injections to treat shingles. She was 18 years old. She spent plenty of time after that day wishing she could go back to the way life was on Jan. 20.

“There’s an element of, at some point once we let ourselves go through the grief,” Weggemann said, referring not to her own journey, but to what millions are facing now, “realizing that it’s OK to not be what we were a month ago, and it doesn’t mean that that’s a bad thing. We can actually end up being so much better because of it.

“The reality is, I look at even my own journey, and I’ve done more on four wheels than I ever did on two feet. My life is so much better because of what happened on January 21st, 2008. While it was traumatic and devastating for me in so many ways, it built me into the person I am today, and I’m a better person because of it.”

Weggemann earned gold and bronze medals at the 2012 London Games.

In 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.

In 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, her husband slept for two weeks on a cot next to her hospital bed. She went 18 months between swimming. Weggemann returned to make the 2019 World Championships team, earning two golds and a silver.

“There’s just that element and reminder that while our world faces devastation and while families are facing heartbreak and while we are all facing change in a way that we have never seen before, maybe it’s OK to not be what were a month ago,” she said. “Maybe, instead of being what we were a month ago, we’re going to find at the end of this that, in fact, we’re so much better.”

MORE: ‘Power of Choice’: Melissa Stockwell on a Paralympic dream deferred

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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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MORE: Five storylines to watch for Tokyo Paralympics