People (USA)

Mallory Weggemann Paralyzed at 18, the former swimmer got back in the pool—and became an inspiratio­n

AFTER AN EPIDURAL LEFT HER PARALYZED AT 18, THE FORMER HIGH SCHOOL SWIMMER RETURNED TO THE POOL, BREAKING WORLD RECORDS AND INSPIRING OTHERS ALONG THE WAY

- By JOHNNY DODD Photograph­s by NINA ROBINSON

Mallory Weggemann was just 18 on that gray Minnesota afternoon in January 2008. Suffering from searing back pain following a case of shingles, she was at an outpatient clinic for the third in a series of therapeuti­c epidural steroid shots. She lay facedown on a gurney, legs bent back at the knees, as a doctor slid the needle into her back—and changed her world. “I remember hearing the heart rate monitors starting to beep louder and louder,” recalls Weggemann. “Then I felt this spark of pain and heard a thud as my legs dropped onto the table.” In that moment, she lost the ability to move her legs or feel anything below her waist.

What she didn’t know then, or

with any certainty for two weeks afterward, was that the paralysis would be permanent. She says doctors couldn’t pinpoint exactly what had gone wrong, and she couldn’t imagine what the road forward might be. What she also didn’t know was her own strength. Now 31, the onetime high school swim-team captain is a Paralympic swimming champion who’s broken 34 American records and 15 world records. She has a new memoir, Limitless, recounting her amazing journey, out March 2, and she’s become a sought-after public speaker and advocate for the disabled. “It’s not the moments that define us but how we respond to them,” she often tells her audiences. Her mission, as she sees it, is to “use my energy to be a beacon for others. Because I still remember how scared and alone I felt when I was 18.”

Growing up in Eagan, Minn., Weggemann and her two older sisters spent plenty of time at the local pools. “Our laundry room always smelled of chlorine,” she recalls. By her senior year in high school (though she insists she “wasn’t a rock star; I just loved to swim”), Weggemann was named captain of the varsity swim team. But she had stopped swimming competitiv­ely and was focusing on her studies at a local community college and her hopes for a career in journalism by the time she arrived at her doctor’s office on that fateful day. “I only have patches of memories,” she says. “But basically, I walked into that exam room and never walked out.”

Afterward she swung from denial to depression to the realizatio­n she would never walk again. Dropping out of college, she moved into a wheelchair-accessible ground-floor bedroom in her family home. Swimming was the last thing on her mind when her sister Christin convinced their parents—chris, an environmen­tal consultant, and Ann, a nurse—to take Mallory to the swimming trials for the 2008 Beijing Summer Paralympic­s. “None of us even knew what the Paralympic­s were,” Weggemann recalls. But at the trials, something inside her clicked. “I remember feeling in utter awe of these people who had physical disabiliti­es fighting for a chance to represent Team USA,” she says. “They clearly weren’t living life with a disability as a consolatio­n prize. It changed my perspectiv­e.”

Two days later, excited but terrified, she returned to the facility and lowered herself into the pool. “I couldn’t feel half my body in the water, and my legs were dragging behind me, but I realized, ‘Who’s to say I can’t still do the things that I love?’ ” Within a couple of weeks, she was swimming two hours a day, building up the strength in her arms and core. “I’d never done a pull-up in my life,” she says. “But I soon could crank out 20 and not even be out of breath.” In March 2009 she made the U.S. National Team and started breaking records, then won gold and bronze medals at the 2012 Summer Paralympic­s. “Every time I broke a record,” she says, “it was my way of fighting against the notion that people with disabiliti­es are incapable.” Along the way she let go of her lingering anger at the medical staff who had performed the epidural (she and her family had opted not to sue). “Holding on to that resentment,” she says, “wasn’t doing anybody any good.”

In the midst of her success, Weggemann was forced to take a break from competi

‘I want to use my voice to give hope’ —MALLORY WEGGEMANN

tions after a 2014 fall (see box) left her with a seriously injured arm requiring multiple surgeries. Despite ongoing pain issues, she came back. “I don’t think there’s another competitor in the world that has her grit and has to endure the pain levels that she does,” says her coach Steve Van Dyne. “During practice, she’ll block out the pain in her arm, but after it’s over she usually throws up in the locker room because it’s so intense.”

The injury didn’t stop her from moving forward outside the pool either: In 2016 Weggemann married Jay Snyder, her agent turned business partner. She spent three months before the wedding learning how to use a pair of carbon fiber foot-tohip braces so she could propel herself, in a standing position, to the altar. “I had dreamed of walking down the aisle with my father for as long as I can remember,” she says. “But it was ridiculous­ly slow and took me five minutes to go 75 ft. I really haven’t walked in them since.”

Her next challenge: the 2021 Summer Paralympic­s in Tokyo. “I’m feeling stronger than ever,” she says. She hopes to keep competing through the 2028 games in L.A., to continue her speaking engagement­s and working with Snyder, 38, on documentar­ies about disabiliti­es and soon to start a family to fill the Eagan home the couple share. “That split second when I became paralyzed doesn’t define who I am,” she says. “It’s just part of who I’ve become.”

 ??  ?? Joy in Motion
When she first tried swimming post-paralysis, Weggemann (at a practice session on Feb. 13) loved “the freedom of freely moving myself. With each stroke, I moved further from my wheelchair.”
Joy in Motion When she first tried swimming post-paralysis, Weggemann (at a practice session on Feb. 13) loved “the freedom of freely moving myself. With each stroke, I moved further from my wheelchair.”
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 ??  ?? Happy Family
“We fell in love working together,” says Weggemann (using custom leg braces to walk with Snyder during their December 2016 wedding). “If we didn’t work so well together, I don’t think we would have ever gotten married.”
Happy Family “We fell in love working together,” says Weggemann (using custom leg braces to walk with Snyder during their December 2016 wedding). “If we didn’t work so well together, I don’t think we would have ever gotten married.”
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