How two-time Paralympian Mallory Weggemann turned a ‘gut-wrenching’ moment into medals and world records
Mallory Weggemann clearly remembers the day her life changed forever: Jan. 21, 2008.
She was 18, a recent high school graduate, when she went to a hospital to receive her third and final epidural injection for back pain caused by a case of shingles. She walked into the doctor’s office thinking she’d be back home that afternoon. But the appointment changed her life. The shot left her paralyzed from the abdomen down.
“Everything I thought that would be true for my future felt like it vanished in that moment,” she says.
Thirteen years later, Weggemann reflects on her traumatic experience with an inspirational perspective and determination. Weggemann may not be able to walk, but she is a two-time Paralympic swimmer, gold medalist, and world record–holder. She walked down the aisle at her wedding four years ago with what she describes as “very fancy braces” after the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympics. She recently released her first book, “Limitless,” in which she chronicles her story of resilience and defying limitations. She’s also training for this summer’s postponed 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.
Before Weggemann, 32, got to this point, though, she was in a hospital bed feeling overwhelmed, sad, and angry. Nothing made sense. She didn’t go into the procedure thinking paralysis was a risk.
“You never think these things will happen to you or people you love,” Weggemann says. “And when it does, it feels like this perpetual nightmare that you can't wake up from. I felt lost. Being in hospital those first few weeks, it was hard to wrap my head around everything. Afterward I felt like everywhere I went people looked at me. I felt overexposed. Everybody looked at me but nobody saw me.”
To make matters worse, Weggemann and her family never got answers as to why the shot caused her paralysis. “It was gut-wrenching,” she says, adding that her family didn’t take any legal action.
Weggemann told herself she needed to forgive so she could get closure and move forward. “It’s part of my identity, but it doesn’t define who I am,” she says.
Getting to that point was extraordinarily difficult, especially because she didn’t know about the Paralympic movement yet. While in the hospital for six weeks, she was surrounded by patients with grim outlooks. Nobody told her what kind of positive opportunities might lie ahead despite her new disability.
A few months after her paralysis, Weggemann’s sister saw in a newspaper article that the U.S. Paralympic Team swimming trials for the 2008 Beijing Paralympics would be hosted at the University of Minnesota, a 30-minute drive from her home in Eagan, Minnesota. Weggemann had been a competitive swimmer since she was 7 and swam through high school. Although her family encouraged her to go, Weggemann was resistant. It was also snowing that day, she wasn’t in the right frame of mind, and she told herself that before going back to school or returning to the pool, she needed to walk.
“I had this list of all these things I wasn’t going to do until I could walk again,” Weggemann says. “I had it in my head that in order to live a fulfilling life I had to walk again. And it was tough because for me that wasn't in the cards. I had a hard time accepting that.”
She ultimately went to trials with her sister and was quickly reminded how much she loved swimming. She also saw athletes who looked just like her have their bodies celebrated.
“I had been told [by society] that looking different means you’re broken,” says Weggemann, an unattached member within the Minnesota LMSC. “I completely started to change my perspective of what my own worth was and what it could be moving forward. It was the first time I felt hope for what my life could be rather than be overwhelmed by fear.”
Weggemann got out of her wheelchair and back in the water two days later—three months after her paralysis—and describes it as the most “freeing experience” she had ever been through.
Weggemann met several U.S. national team coaches, including her now former coach, Jim Anderson, at trials that night. With no sensation from her belly button down, trying to figure out where her legs were in the water behind her was challenging. Anderson helped her get creative in the pool, like making a U-turn during her turns and learning how to use her core and arms to throw herself off a starting block from a tight ball position with her knees tucked into her chest.
Less than a year and a half later, Weggemann broke her first set of world records at the 2009 Speedo Can-Am Para Swimming Championships. Over the next four years, she broke 34 American records, became a 12-time world champion, and won a gold and a bronze medal at the 2012 London Paralympics. Her gold medal race, in which she came from behind to win, is one of the most memorable moments of the meet.
But in 2014, as she was setting her goals for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympics, Weggemann faced a new challenge. After a shower seat broke under her at a hotel, she suffered permanent nerve damage to her left arm, causing her to consider retiring.
That’s when her former club and high school coach, Steve Van Dyne, showed up. Weggemann’s husband, Jay, had called Van Dyne, who got her back in the pool and ready for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympics.
“A lot of people will take injuries and think they can’t accomplish what they truly want to accomplish,” Van Dyne says. “She took it positively and said, ‘No, this is not going to limit me.’ Mentally, there's no stopping her, and it’s a tribute to who she is. She’s always striving to be better and pushing herself to be better.”
Van Dyne had followed Weggemann’s career and knew her family well. (He had also coached her two older sisters.) He had no experience coaching Paralympians or a swimmer with nerve damage, but he worked with Weggemann to get her mentally stronger and tinkered with her technique to make her more efficient. She began focusing on using her core and back more to get through the water and not aggravate her arm injury.
They also often trained together. Ahead of the Paralympics in 2016, Van Dyne was swimming with Minnesota Masters so he could compete in U.S. Masters Swimming’s Summer Nationals that year. He saw firsthand how hard Weggemann worked and how much pain she was in. She would sometimes throw up after practice.
But nothing was going to stop her. Although she didn’t medal, Weggemann made it through her second Paralympics and is determined to be back in her best shape for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.
“I really do credit swimming to saving my life and helping me realize there's a place for me in this world and I have the ability to have a say in this even though I didn't have a say in that day,” she says. “[Swimming] allowed me to piece my life back together.”
- Human Interest