I can’t leave January 21, 2008, in the past,” says Mallory Weggemann, a five-time Paralympic medalist swimmer. That’s when the then 18-year-old Weggemann had an epidural injection for back pain, with complications from the procedure ultimately leaving her paralyzed from the waist down. “It’s with me every day in the four wheels beneath me.”
Forced to negotiate a new way of living life, the Minnesota native remembers how she felt in the months that followed.
“I had no idea what life with paralysis would look like or what that meant for my future. Everything around me had changed — the way I moved, the way I looked, the reflection in the mirror,” Weggemann tells CNN Sport’s Coy Wire.
In trying to contemplate her new path forward, Weggemann turned to an old passion.
“When I went back to the pool, I realized it was the one place that was unchanged: water is water, chlorine is chlorine. It bridged me to my past and gave me a path forward.”
Weggemann is emphatic when she says, “Swimming really saved my life in a lot of ways.“
Mallory Weggemann says that, after her paralysis, swimming “really saved my life in a lot of ways.”
One of the reasons it was so difficult for Weggemann to accept her disability, beyond the physical challenges, was the image presented to her of disabled people.
“We look at disability in society as something that needs to be pitied: a worst-case scenario outcome. We don’t see the potential that lies within.
Weggemann is an example of that potential, with a lengthy list of accomplishments. Most will know her name from her athletic achievements; she has been a mainstay of USA Swimming since the 2009 World Championships, and she recently captured two golds and a silver at the delayed Tokyo 2020 Paralympics.
But Weggemann, who has grown to be proud of her disability, is quick to point out that it isn’t the entirety of her identity.
“Society wanted to box me into what life with a disability should look like. The reality is I’m five years married, dreaming of a family, I’m a business owner, an athlete. All the things society said weren’t for people like me.”
That’s not to mention the title of the author, with her book “Limitless,” which hit shelves earlier this year.
Weggemann won two golds and a silver at the delayed Tokyo 2020 Paralympics this year.
Weggemann is especially proud of her business, TFA Group, which seeks “to change the perception of disability in our society through the power of storytelling.”
Weggemann and her husband Jay are the co-CEOs and work diligently to spread stories of triumph over adversity with projects like their “Impact Films” series of short documentaries about athletes living with disabilities that can be found on major streaming platforms.
But even her work with TFA has brought Weggemann back to the water. One such project she worked on was the 2018 short feature “Amazing Grace,” the story of 14-year-old Grace Bunke, a fellow swimmer who lost her battle with childhood cancer.
Weggemann got a chance to swim and spend a day with Grace in 2018, and the young athlete’s passion to raise funds for childhood cancer research left a lasting impression on the US Paralympian, leading to the documentary that chronicled Grace’s battle.
Weggemann swam in honor of Grace at a “Swim Across America” event in Atlanta earlier this year. She was joined by Grace’s mother Vicki, who swam 14 meets in honor of her daughter (one for each year of Grace’s life) with sponsorships and proceeds from the race going to cancer research.
“Grace was a young woman with an energy about her, she could connect with everyone around her. And Vicki has so courageously shared Grace with the world in the years since, so to swim alongside her was really specFor Weggemann, swimming and sport, in general, can be “a beacon to do something that has the power to change lives.”
For Weggemann, it’s a reminder of what her beloved sport of swimming can accomplish beyond the pool, medals, accolades, or discussions of disabilities.
“It’s a reminder of how far the sport can reach. That swim had nothing to do with winning or racing. It was about using sport for good and allowing it to be a beacon to do something that has the power to change lives.”
For the five-time Paralympic medalist, swimming was the outlet that helped her make sense of her situation, but Weggemann hopes her message resonates even beyond sports.
“We all carry moments that bring trauma and grief and loss and adversity. But at the end of the day, we are more than our circumstance. I hope that more than even hearing my story, I hope it encourages people to honor their own.”