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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.

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Becca Meyers wants more Paralympic gold and an Olympic Trials spot

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Becca Meyers normally swims six days a week, totaling up to 50,000 meters. The coronavirus pandemic put a stop to that.

Meyers, the greatest distance swimmer in her Paralympic classification for visual impairment, spent three months out of the pool. Now, after moving from the D.C. area to her native Baltimore, she is back in the water twice a week, covering a fraction of her usual training distance.

She called it “starting from scratch.”

“I have confidence in myself,” Meyers said, “and with the help of Bruce, I know I can get back to where I need to be.”

That’s Bruce Gemmell, best known for coaching Katie Ledecky while she rewrote the distance-swimming record books in the Rio Olympic cycle. Gemmell began coaching Meyers last year, though she said it is now a virtual relationship due to her pandemic-forced relocation.

“I knew he could take me to the next level,” Meyers said.

Gemmell, who had never regularly trained a Paralympic hopeful, was convinced to add Meyers to his Nation’s Capital group after watching her swim for 20 minutes.

“She had this damn Olympic rings tattoo on the back of her rib cage,” he said. “I saw those damn rings going up and down the pool a couple of times, and I just almost immediately thought, I’ll do whatever I can do to help her out.”

They clicked right away. Meyers broke six world records in 2019 and earned four medals at the world championships across butterfly, freestyle and the individual medley.

“I don’t think I’m exaggerating it when I say she immediately reminded me of Katie,” Gemmell said. “The heck with any barriers. I don’t care what the hurdles are. This is what I want to do.

Meyers developed goals not only to earn four individual Tokyo Paralympic medals, but also to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Trials. USA Swimming does not have record of a Paralympian qualifying for previous Olympic Trials.

Meyers, who was born deaf with Usher syndrome, which also caused her to go blind, believes she had a great chance to become the first if the Tokyo Games had been held this summer.

Her personal bests are within three seconds of the Olympic Trials qualifying standard in the 400m freestyle, 13 seconds in the 800m free and 22 seconds in the 1500m free (a 16-minute race). The 800m and 1500m are not on the Paralympic program.

Before the pandemic, Meyers was scheduled to chase Olympic Trials qualifying times at meets in March, April, May and June.

“I feel like I was on the right track,” Meyers said.

Instead, she spent all or parts of each of those months not swimming at all. And without Gemmell after she relocated to Baltimore and re-registered as a Franklin and Marshall College history major. It’s unknown when she can return to normal training in D.C.

“[Olympic Trials] was a goal this past year, and I’m still holding onto that goal,” she said.

So much time off is not foreign to Meyers. After her Paralympic debut at age 17 in 2012, she suffered a severe concussion from a collision while circle swimming in a high school meet warm-up. She also tore all the ligaments in the back of her neck and was sidelined for two to three months.

Meyers came back to win double gold at the 2013 World Championships. At the Rio Paralympics, she earned three golds and one silver in individual events, plus broke three world records in arguably the best performance by any U.S. swimmer.

“The comparison I always made when I talked to anybody else, Becca was the Katie [Ledecky] of the Rio Paralympic Games,” Gemmell said. “That was the attitude, the dominance, the performances, the winning medals, sort of a parallel there.”

Meyers detailed the pandemic’s effect on her out of the pool in a July 5 Instagram post.

“As a deafblind person, the world has become pretty hard for me to navigate on my own,” she wrote, accompanying a photo with her guide dog, Birdie, a yellow lab/golden retriever mix. “With face coverings and physical distancing, I lose my ability to fully communicate with others and be independent. Birdie and I went on our first adventure to the store since COVID-19 changed the way we live. We have not been to a store or a public business together since the beginning of March because I was scared. Scared of the masks. Scared of the new ‘normal’ layout of the stores. Scared of not being able to hear or read someone’s lips when they communicated with me. Even though I am scared, it is a challenge that I am willing to take to own my independence.”

Meyers is searching, like many Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls forced to extend their Tokyo prep another year.

“I was in my prime,” she said. “I really am counting down the days until everything is back to normal, whatever that means.”

MORE: How the Olympics, Paralympics intersected over time

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Matt Stutzman, the Armless Archer, motivated by Rio equipment malfunction

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Matt Stutzman placed a memento from the Rio Paralympics on his shelf in his Iowa home. Not to remember a celebratory moment, but to remind him of what must never happen again.

Four years ago, Stutzman, profiled across major media as the “Armless Archer,” went to the Games looking to improve upon his compound silver medal from the London Paralympics.

But Stutzman, after placing fourth in the initial ranking round, was stunned in the round of 16 by Brazilian Andrey Muniz de Castro, who was 20th in the ranking round and 33rd at the 2015 Worlds.

Castro upset Stutzman by one point. Of all his arrows, Stutzman remembers his last shot, where he scored an eight out of ten.

“Up to that point, he hadn’t shot anything out of the gold,” coach M.J. Rogers said, referring to the two innermost rings on the target. “So, nines and tens, they were just a given. All he needed to shoot was a nine, and then the eight popped up.”

After Stutzman did media interviews, he was handed his arrows. He noticed a crack in the final arrow’s nock and was convinced the equipment malfunction occurred before he used it. He kept the arrow and nock and now sees it regularly at home.

The slightest error can have a significant impact, given arrows are shot 200 miles per hour from 50 meters away.

“Never had one break like that,” Stutzman said. “It caused it to obviously not go where it was meant to go.”

Rogers said he bears responsibility for not inspecting the arrows before passing them from a runner to Stutzman that day in Rio.

“If I would have done to his arrows what I currently do with every arrow that I retrieve with any of the [archers], I would have noticed it,” he said. “In a big way, it’s my fault.”

Stutzman didn’t blame Rogers, who remains his coach.

“We put in a process to prevent that from happening again,” said the 37-year-old Stutzman, who Rogers believes is the only Paralympic medal hopeful who shoots with his feet. “What I’ve learned is I need to check them, especially at that level, after every shot and not just at the beginning of the event.”

Stutzman spoke to promote his appearance in “Rising Phoenix,” a film about the history of the Paralympic movement that premieres on Netflix this week. It also tells the stories of nine current Paralympians, including Stutzman, who was born without arms, adopted and then climbed to the top of a sport that relies on upper-body strength.

“Everybody who watches this is hopefully going to be in for a life-changing experience,” the father of three said.

What happened in Rio helped spark a major change in Stutzman’s life, too. He lost around 50 pounds since those Games, hiring a personal trainer and nutritionist.

“If I’m going to be a professional athlete, I need to play the part,” he said. “I can shoot all day without getting tired.”

It paid off at the 2019 World Championships. Stutzman was part of a U.S. men’s team that broke a world record in the ranking round (though they did not earn a medal). He also earned a first individual world medal, a bronze, competing on a rain-soaked platform that forced him to reset his chair after shots, Rogers said.

“I can only imagine what whole ‘nother year of me eating right — shooting and mentally training as well — will add to what I’ve got going into the next Games,” Stutzman said.

MORE: How the Olympics, Paralympics intersected over time

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