Down the aisle or in her lane, don't doubt Paralympic swimmer Mallory Weggemann

Mallory Weggemann, who won a gold and bronze at the 2012 London Paralympics, qualified for seven swimming events in Rio.

LAKEVILLE, Minn. -- In late December, three months after Mallory Weggemann swims at the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, she will be married in Minneapolis. With the help of a wedding planner, Weggemann worked out every detail, including a walk down the aisle that almost certainly will have everyone holding their breath.

Weggemann, 27, is paralyzed from the waist down. She uses a wheelchair to get around. But on her wedding day, she's determined to walk, using carbon fiber leg braces under her wedding dress.

A few weeks ago, Chris Weggemann, Mallory's father and an executive with an environmental company, sketched on a dry erase board in his downtown Minneapolis office to show how the braces function. A former architect, he marveled at the mechanics.

But, he said, it's a chore. Mallory will need specialized training at the Mayo Clinic to develop core muscle strength to move the braces. Chris and his wife, Ann, will accompany Mallory down the aisle, just in case.

Oh, and there's one more thing: Mallory plans to stay in the braces for the first dance.

"It takes a lot of energy for her to stand up and do that," Chris Weggemann said. "She does it with a smile on her face, but we've seen the ramifications the day after, because her body takes a toll. She's got great ambitions on that day, and I'm just like, don't crash and burn. Don't wear yourself out. It's a long day."

Maybe it's too much, But the Weggemann family learned a long time ago what happens when Mallory puts her mind to something.

An accomplished high school swimmer, Mallory was left paralyzed following an epidural injection for back pain in 2008, shortly before her 19th birthday. Two and a half months later, after her sister took her to a Paralympic swim meet at the University of Minnesota, Mallory returned to the pool.

Between 2009 and 2011 she won 22 international gold medals, three consecutive USA Swimming Disabled Swimmer of the Year awards, and a 2011 ESPY as Best Female Athlete with a Disability. She added 50-meter freestyle gold and a relay bronze at the 2012 Paralympics in London. Mallory holds 15 world and 34 American records.

Then in March 2014, a freak accident in the shower at a New York hotel -- the bench she sat on gave way -- left Mallory with permanent nerve damage in her left arm. Unable to move her wrist or grip properly, Mallory lost her hard-gained independence. She couldn't wheel herself, dress herself, drive, or even braid her hair. With one fully functioning arm, swimming seemed out of the question.

"I had a hard enough time trying to figure out how to live each day, how to do everything each day," Mallory said. "I didn't really know how I was supposed to think about getting back in the water and swimming again. That was hard.

"When I had my paralysis, the way I fought back was, I got in the pool and I swam. Swimming is a spiritual thing for me. It's not just being a competitive swimmer. It's my place. It's my sanctuary. That has been the place that gave me the strength to go and conquer everything else. After my arm injury, I felt like it was taken from me. I thought I had to retire, and that was terrifying."

How Mallory puzzled it out, eventually qualifying for seven events in Rio beginning Thursday, reflects her steely perseverance and the support of her family and friends.

"As a competitor, Mallory may only have one good arm," Chris Weggemann said. "But she's got a head on her shoulders that believes she can do anything."

First, Mallory needed a new coach to replace Jim Andersen, who guided her through London but moved away. Someone to rebuild her shaken psyche, then push her.

That proved to be Steve Van Dyne, a family friend who coached her at Eagan High School. Van Dyne stopped coaching in 2012 to watch his young daughters swim, but told the Weggemanns to get in touch if they ever needed anything.

"Steve was the savior," said Jeremy Snyder, Weggemann's fiancé and manager.

There was a lot to do. Van Dyne never coached an athlete with a disability before. Mallory hadn't been in the pool for five months. The nerve damage also caused occasional uncontrollable tremors in the arm, and when they struck, Mallory couldn't swim at all.

"We had to get her back into the right frame of mind," Van Dyne said. "I still have to drill it into her a little bit even to this day: You're not exactly the same swimmer as what you were before the arm injury. Then it was really just chipping away, day by day.

"We were always bringing her back to, where were you six months ago? See the positives and not focus on the arm. If [the] arm hurts, don't practice. Go have a little coffee, talk, figure it out and let's get in the water tomorrow."

Van Dyne is, for lack of a better term, a friendly agitator. He and Mallory needle each other constantly, whether on the pool deck at Life Time Fitness in Lakeville, where Mallory trains, or afterward in the club café.

"They're like little kids," Chris Weggemann said. "The two of them have a relationship that is really unique. He knows how to push her, right to the edge, not too far. She pushes back, and that's OK. Steve knows how to play her. If he says certain things to her, she'll swim faster.

"Part of that goes back to when she was a kid. You tell her, 'You can't do that,' she'll just be, 'Well, heck, I'm going to do it.' That's what Steve plays on. 'You can't do that.' Well, 'Game on then. Let's go.' And -- boom -- she does it."

Along the way Mallory endured moments of doubt, especially in April, when disappointing times at the Paralympic test event in Rio made her fear she wouldn't make the team. Van Dyne told her not to sweat it.

"I wasn't worried, because we were still a long ways away, and I knew what she was capable of," he said. "I'd seen glimpses in our practices."

Three months later, at the U.S. Paralympic team trials in Charlotte, North Carolina, Mallory made the team easily. Even with her arm limitations, Mallory swam a personal best in the 100-meter backstroke and her second-fastest 200 individual medley.

When Mallory wheeled herself out of the meeting room after learning she made it, her parents, fiancé and coach were waiting. Even Van Dyne -- "Mr. Tough Guy," Mallory said -- couldn't hold back tears.

"When I say she did the impossible, I don't mean that she's not capable, because she certainly is," said her mother, Ann. "But what she did in those two years seemed insurmountable. It was an incredible moment."

When first paralyzed, Mallory focused on "little victories," regaining small pieces of her independence. That continues. Reworking the hand controls in her car allowed Mallory to drive again. She learned to maneuver her wheelchair without a left-hand grip.

The arm remains troublesome, and the pain from training frequently makes Mallory sick to her stomach. But Van Dyne believes Mallory has more medal-winning performances in her.

"As hard as life can get in certain moments, there's always a way to move forward," Mallory said. "We just have to choose to move forward. I knew how to do that. I learned that after my paralysis. I knew I had the strength to do it. I just had to find that again."

http://www.espn.com/espnw/sports/article/17484769/mallory-weggemann-retu...

September 9, 2016
ESPNW by: Pat Borzi