Eagan swimmer Mallory Weggemann ready for second Paralympic Games

Mallory Weggemann (Photo courtesy of The Factory Agency)

It was supposed to be a routine epidural injection. Instead, it was life-altering for Mallory Weggemann.

One of the country’s best Paralympic swimmers, Weggemann leaves for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro on Thursday. But first, there will be a free pep rally that day, including autograph signings, at Lifetime Fitness in Lakeville, which has become a home away from home for Weggemann as she trains for her second Paralympic Games, Sept 7-18.

As treatment for back pain related to postherpetic neuralgia — which is caused by shingles — Weggemann already had received two injections. The third, in January 2008, had a horrible side effect, leaving her with no movement below her waist.

Since then, Weggemann has moved primarily with a wheelchair, but in November 2013 she began walking with the aid of leg braces. She uses the braces for special occasions and plans to use them when she gets married in December.

“With the use of leg braces, I will be able to walk down the aisle with my dad,” said Weggemann, who lives in Eagan. “I don’t use them very often, but when I do, it’s special.”

A competitive swimmer since age 7, Weggemann decided to get back into the pool after attending the Paralympic Swimming Trials at the University of Minnesota in April 2008.

To say she has found success would be an understatement. Weggemann holds 34 American records, 15 world records and won gold and bronze medals at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London. She will compete in seven individual events in Rio.

The Pioneer Press recently spoke with Weggemann about her experiences.

BS: I’m sure you watched the swimming at the Olympics. Were you wishing you could get to Rio right away?

MW: It’s so great seeing the Olympic Games start right before the Paralympics. You really get the hype and excitement going in the final stages of your training. Seeing the Olympics happen was really, really fun and changed the dynamic in practice. The excitement levels were up and the adrenaline was up, knowing your moment is coming up.

BS: How many gold medals are you planning to win?

MW: (Laughs) For the Rio Games, I’m not super focused on the color of the medal or the count right now. In March 2014, I had a serious arm injury. There was concern it could mean retirement. In the past year, we’ve been fighting to come back from the injury. I’m back and will be swimming in seven events in Rio. I’m top eight in the world in all seven events. I am looking forward to defending my win at the London Olympics in the 50-meter freestyle. This experience is very different from London. I’ve been fighting to come back, and there is excitement knowing I made it and will compete in seven events.

BS: What happened to your arm?

MW: It was nerve damage. I had a pretty severe fall in 2014. We’re coming back from it.

BS: What is your best event?

MW: It depends on the day. The 50-meter freestyle is one of my better events. I rank pretty high in the 100-meter freestyle and 100-meter breaststroke.

BS: Do you have a great rivalry with anyone in particular?

MW: It depends on the event. The classification I’m in, we have great competition. There are great competitors in the U.S. and in the United Kingdom. Worldwide, we have great competition. I’m looking forward to it, because the faster they race, the faster you race.

BS: When you are healthy, are you the Michael Phelps or Katie Ledecky of Paralympic swimming?

MW: I wouldn’t quite say that. Michael and Katie are incredible athletes. We have some incredible athletes going to the Paralympics. I’ve had a great run in my career — when I’m healthy. Post-injury to my arm, I am far and beyond in the best shape I’ve been in. I have become a stronger athlete. My arm injury is a permanent injury. I’ve lost quite a bit of mobility in my left arm, but at the trials I put up some of my best times.

BS: It’s incredible you can swim with a loss of mobility in one of your arms.

MW: We’ve been creative. There has been a lot of stroke technique changes. We focus on what we can do, as opposed to what we can’t.

BS: How tough is it to swim without the use of your legs?

MW: It was an adjustment. It wasn’t the easiest thing to adapt to and figure out. What I like about swimming is it’s a gravity-free environment. I use my upper body and what I do have to propel my body.

BS: How optimistic are you that, with scientific advancements, you will walk again?

MW: I don’t really know the answer to that. Every spinal cord injury is different. Some individuals, based on their injury, have a higher likelihood of walking again. It’s different for everybody. I’ve learned whether or not I ever walk again doesn’t determine how great my future can or can’t be. Medicine may someday cure spinal cord injuries, but we don’t need to walk to feel cured. It’s great to see such a dark time in my life eight years ago turn into something so great.

BS: What are your non-swimming goals?

MW: Outside of the pool, one of my big focuses has been that I am very involved in motivational speaking. I love to write. My focus is pretty heavy in the water right now. What I love about the Paralympic movement is I truly believe it transcends sports. It shows what individuals really are capable of.

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August 29, 2016
Twin Cities Pioneer Press by: BOB SANSEVERE