A Routine Procedure Changed This Athlete’s Life Forever

Courtesy of Hershey's.
Mallory Weggemann never planned on being an Olympian. Growing up, she enjoyed swimming, but refers to herself then as a "good state-level swimmer" who was captain of her high school team. She didn't plan on competing on a national level, or even applying for scholarships to college. "I loved the sport, but I also loved just having fun," she told Refinery29 by phone. When she was 18, that all changed. A medical procedure meant to treat her back pain instead went terribly wrong. Weggemann was left paraplegic, unable to use her legs or move anything from the waist down. After her injury, swimming became not only her hobby, but her refuge — and soon, her vocation. "Although I was dedicated before my injury, I don’t think I really tapped into my full potential until after my paralysis happened," she said. "In a lot of ways, I’m a totally different athlete than I was before my injury." Eight years after her paralysis, Weggemann is going for her second Paralympic gold at the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games. Refinery29 talked with her about getting back in the pool after her injury, her hopes for Rio, and how her family and friends keep her going.
You never thought you would be swimming at a national, much less international level. What was it like getting back into the pool after your injury, and realizing that you wanted to take it to that next level?
"After my injury, since I had established this love for the sport my entire life, that fire still burned inside of me. I wasn’t burned out; I wasn’t ready to be done. And so, I got back into the water about two and a half months after my paralysis. Initially, it was hard. I was excited and anxious to get back in, but I was also very scared of the water because my body didn’t react the way it used to. I think when things started changing for me is, once I did get back in the water, I started training again. I realized I could do all the same things I did before my paralysis. "Returning to the water, I looked at swimming as a way to redefine what was possible, and a way to redefine limitations of what I, as an individual with physical disabilities, could be capable of. And to me it was kind of this game of, every day I was able to get faster, stronger in the water. It just proved more and more that I wasn’t physically disabled anymore."

When I ultimately won my gold medal, there was shock, to be completely honest. When I first realized I had come in first, it was total disbelief.

Mallory Weggemann
You won the gold for the 50-meter freestyle at the Paralympic Games in 2012. How did you feel when you won?
"When I went to the London 2012 Games, I didn’t really know what to expect. When I left, my mom and dad put together a scrapbook [with] messages. It was letters from hundreds of people in my life — colleagues of my parents, friends or family friends, our church community, the swimming community, all of our loved ones. "When I ultimately won my gold medal, there was shock, to be completely honest. When I first realized I had come in first, it was total disbelief. And when it all sunk in and I sat next to the podium, what I realized was that the medal itself didn’t really have to do much with this race. It took me 31.13 seconds for my 50-meter freestyle. But in reality, that medal doesn’t represent the 31.13 seconds. It represents the four years, it represents the journey, the love and the heartbreak, and the successes and the failures, and the transition from hoping to actually believing again. And most of all, for me, it really represents the community of people I had around me, and the people that believed [in] me when I was ready to give up." You talk about how important your family’s support is.
"I remember my first swim meet back in the water in 2008. It was about three and a half months after I was paralyzed. My entire family was there with me. It was one of those moments where — at that point we still didn’t know what life looked like for me moving forward. We didn’t know what my future would be. We didn’t know what to expect. "But in that moment, it was probably one of the first moments in those three and a half months that it didn’t matter that I was in a wheelchair. We were just purely able to enjoy that moment as a family. That was an incredibly special way to start my swimming career. I always joke that I lost that day to seven other 9-year-olds, but it didn’t matter that they were younger than me. I was still swimming. “Every time I go away to a competition, my [family has] cards for me for every single day of competition for me to open on each given day. Those little reminders that we’re here for you and we support you and we love you, those messages of knowing they believe in me in those moments when, as an athlete, you’ve got nerves or you’re starting to have self-doubts, it’s incredibly special. We had the opportunity about a month ago to shoot the Hello From Home campaign with Hershey’s. It was really neat, because the whole campaign is pretty much what my family has done for the past eight years of my swimming career."

Don’t discredit yourself and what you’re capable of.

Mallory Weggemann
Looking forward to Rio, what are you most excited for? You’ve already won a gold!
"The emotions I have going into Rio are very different than London. Six months ago, I think I was still nervous and questioning whether I would be able to pull this off. I think my coach and loved ones all knew I could, but you know, you’re your own worst critic. I was very nervous about that. "For me, this is about truly being able to just enjoy the experience. I’ve been to the games once, I’ve won a Paralympic gold medal, a bronze medal. I’ve kind of done what I need to do to prove myself on an international stage. Although I’m an athlete at heart and I still have goals and ambitions for what I would like to achieve, there’s also a side of me as just an individual who wants to just go and enjoy the experience and know that, at this point as an athlete, there’s really nothing left to prove." So, you’re also getting married in December — congratulations! What is it like trying to prep for Rio and plan a wedding? Do you ever use one to get out of some unpleasant things about preparing for the other?
"You know, it’s funny! We ended up hiring a wedding planner. My fiancé is a smart man, and he talked me into [it]. I was very, ‘We’ve got it on our own, I love to plan!’ So we do have a little help. "It’s a lot, but it’s fun! Obviously, as focused as I am on Rio, it is good to have something other than Rio all the time, because if you hyper-focus too much, that also can be your demise. We’re kind of enjoying the distraction, but I am actually at the point where I have to decide on the wedding dress. And I’ve been looking. I’ve been saying I’m going to decide for three months, but with trials coming around, I’m like, ‘I can’t make any decisions right now, I’ll do it after trials!’ And now [that] trials are over, I really need to decide. "The best part of it is knowing that no matter what happens in Rio, I’m at the point in my life where, when I return home, whether I have one medal, five medals, whatever I have in tow, I’m also coming home to a life that continues on past 'being an athlete.' That actually makes the athletic career a little less scary, because it’s not the be-all-end-all of who I am as a person." Do you have any advice for people who may see you as an inspirational figure?
"I think that the biggest thing I’ve realized in my own journey is, you’re stronger than you realize. And I say that because there’s so many people that will tell me, ‘I don’t know how you do it.’ Or, ‘If that happened to me, I wouldn’t be able to do it.’ "I kind of challenge people to think otherwise. Because I truly do think that we are all stronger than we realize. And unfortunately, it’s not until we face those adversities in our lives that we’re forced to recognize those strengths. Don’t discredit yourself and what you’re capable of. Don’t discredit your strength, and your courage, and your ability to overcome, because I think we all have those capabilities. They’re just tapped into [at] different points in our lives." Video: Watch Mallory open messages from her family and loved ones, in a Hello From Home campaign video shared exclusively with Refinery29.

Editor's note: The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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