Girls Sports Month: Mallory Weggemann on the power of sports to overcome challenges

Mallory Weggemann won a historic gold medal in the S8 classification at the London Paralympic Games — Getty Images

March is Girls Sports Month. USA TODAY High School Sports has partnered with the Women’s Sports Foundation for a series of pieces in which female athletes share their views on topics such as leadership, mentoring, perseverance and the important role athletics has played in their lives. The Women’s Sports Foundation is dedicated to providing safe and equitable sports opportunities so that all girls receive the significant health, education and leadership benefits sports provide both on and off the field. The WSF shapes public attitude about women’s sports, gets girls active by supporting community organizations with funding and resources, ensures equal opportunities for girls and women, and supports physically and emotionally healthy lifestyles. You can find the WSF on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Visit WomensSportsFoundation.org for inspiring athlete content and resources for parents, coaches and student-athletes. For previous Girls Sports Month coverage, click here.

Across the world of adaptive sports, few athletes have made a bigger splash than Mallory Weggemann. The 25-year-old swimmer with paraplegia won the gold medal at the Paralympic Games in London in the 50-meter freestyle in the S8 classification with a record-setting time, a stunning development in large part because she had previously always competed a classification lower, in the S7 division.

Weggemann’s inspirational journey following a 2008 accident during an epidural injection to treat back pain that left her paraplegic has been chronicled and recounted numerous times since her memorable performance in London. She returned to a pool deck less than four months after she was left paralyzed and worked her way into being one of the world’s best swimmers while redefining her stroke. She now serves as a motivational speaker when she is not training for another run at Paralympic medals in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

She spoke to USA TODAY High School Sports about her own journey and how significant swimming was in her path to acceptance of paraplegia and her own inner strength.

USA TODAY HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS: Why are sports so important for girls today? What do they mean for you?

MALLORY WEGGEMANN: I think one of the big things that’s played a role in my life from sports is building self confidence. I started being competitive in the sport of swimming at age 7 and it played a huge role in my development, from my early years into middle school and in high school. I became paraplegic at age 18, and a few months after my injury I found myself back in the pool again. It was a very emotional time in my life and to this day I credit the sport of swimming for helping save me. It helped me find my self-worth and take that term disability and throw it out the window. Getting back in the pool and in the sport of swimming allowed me the self confidence that I needed, and I think that’s one of the most important parts of sport, regardless of what sport it is. It’s a place to have a voice and find yourself at home amongst your teammates and coaches and positive role models outside your home life. You can bond with your teammates and coaches and build your confidence as an individual.

USAT: All athletes face challenges in their respective sports. Are there particular challenges that an adaptive athlete might have to overcome? Share your own experience.

MW: I think one of the biggest challenges for adaptive athletes, though I haven’t had to face it that much, is finding access to adaptive equipment. Figuring out your strengths and weaknesses is a challenge, but with swimming I’m lucky because you don’t need equipment to swim. I’m wheelchair bound on land, but I can get in the pool and swim myself. Right after the London Olympics, I decided to learn to mono ski, and it was a shocking experience to see the price tag. I’ve always heard the stat that only 10 percent of differently abled people are active, and that was hard to grasp until I saw the price tag. Once you get past the initial step of the price tag there are wonderful granting organizations, including the Challenger Organization and the Women’s Sports Foundation.

Beyond that, the biggest challenge is being OK with being vulnerable. The level of communication I’ve learned to have with my coaches is a level of communication that is important for all athletes, but I think if you don’t have a disability you can slide by without needing to have that level of communication. I was able to swim right away on a USA Club team, and the Minnesota swimming team welcomed me with open arms. What came with that was just being open, knowing my limitations and my abilities so I could create an environment when I could succeed in the sport. I had to learn to be vulnerable and have an open line of communication with the coaching staff around me.

USAT: What are the opportunities for you in your sport at the various levels of play?

MW: As a swimmer in general it’s amazing the amount of programs that are out there. I was fortunate to grow up in a community where gender inequality didn’t seem to exist for me and my sisters and myself were fortunate to experience (swimming) from the beginning. I swam USA youth program and then in middle school and high school, and after my paralysis I signed back up to a USA Swimming team.

I could talk your ear off about how much I love to swim. It doesn’t matter what your ability is, whether you’re a powerhouse or an Olympic gold medal swimmer, or if you just enjoy the water. The water is inclusive, it’s an anti-gravity zone and I feel just as empowered as a paraplegic swimmer as I did before I was injured. I’ve been very, very blessed in the sports of swimming. I was paralyzed in January 2008 and two months later, I found myself back in the pool. My sister found an article in the newspaper about the trials for swimming at the Beijing Games.

It was a new world for my family and I and we were naive about what this meant for our family. I had just gotten out of the hospital, but we went to the trials at the University of Minnesota. As soon as I was exposed to that, I wanted it back in my life. We never had a moment where we had to search to get back involved. I went back to the University of Minnesota the following Monday, and the coach, who I briefly talked to after the meet ,just had me get right in the pool. There was never a point again where we had to stop and think, ‘How are we going to get you involved?’ I was the only athlete on the pool deck in a wheelchair the day I was there, and I got in the pool and started swimming, two months later I was swimming in a USA club swimming meet getting beaten by 8-year-olds, and it was great. The whole community just embraced it. That was one of the biggest blessings my family and I have experienced. We experienced it as a family the first time and then a second time when I was a paralyzed girl heading back to the pool to go swimming. There were countless opportunities where I great.

USAT: What hurdles have you faced because of your disability and how have you overcome them?

MW: One of the biggest hurdles I had to deal with after my paralysis was feeling like I fit in again. Becoming paralyzed at 18 was very difficult because girls are very impressionable at that age and it’s a big time for growth. Just graduating from high school to becoming paralyzed was very difficult. I didn’t have the confidence I had before. When I became paralyzed, I lost a little bit of that for a little while. One of the biggest challenges was finding my way back to who I identified with as an individual.

Getting back into the pool really did save me. Although I might be ‘different’ than three months prior to getting back in the water, I was still me, and I could get into a pool and swim up and down looking at a black line as much as I wanted. I couldn’t do a kick flip, but I could still swim, and that was a very empowering moment and helped me develop the confidence to determine what my self-worth would be. It helped me realize that at the end of the day everyone around me had a disability as well. While I didn’t know anyone with a disability growing up, I was no more different than those around me before. Disabilities can be financial, emotional, spiritual, physical. When I got back in the water I realized that we all have a disability at some points in our life. That was a big hurdle for me personally and emotionally as an individual, but swimming helped me move forward as an individual.

USAT: What are the challenges, in your opinion, that exist with male vs female equality in sports?

MW: That’s a hard question for me to answer because as a swimmer I haven’t noticed a ton of gender inequality. I know it exists and I know for some sports it is clear as day and black and white. But for swimming and where I grew up, I was never that aware to it. I was very fortunate that I knew that I grew up in a day and age where there were many strong and influential women who allowed me to live with that level if naiveness about gender inequality. It’s only when I’ve gotten older where I’ve noticed how much some women, like with the action sports, have had to fight to be able to compete. I do think that swimming allowed me to wear rose-colored glasses as a teenager, but as I’ve become involved in the broader sports community I’ve really understood the influence of Billie Jean King and the work of the Women’s Sports Foundation and other groups. Hopefully in another 20 years this won’t even be a thought and girls will have access to it.

USAT: What is your view on how women are represented in sports?

MW: I truly believe that we are represented very positively in sports. We have individuals like Billie Jean King, who founded WSF more than 40 years ago, and what they’ve done to make sport more accessible and inclusive are remarkable. The WSF’s initiative like Go Girl Go really reaches girls when they are at their most impressionable, when their young to when they’re in high school. You now have companies that are rallying around the message of doing things like a girl. When I was a kid that was an insult, and now it’s an empowering message. What companies have done to both brand and educate and inspire and change the perception of what it means to be a girl in society today is amazing. We have the power of social media, which is a platform that gives everyone a voice. I think that allows women and girls to stand up and have a stronger voice by sharing their message.

USAT: Do you feel that girls and boys sports should be played with the same rules whenever possible?

MW: I do. I don’t necessarily see a reason for changing the rules girls versus boys, even when there is contact. We’re tough, we have two feet and can stand on our own, and I think sometimes changing the rules sets the wrong perception that we’re weaker or not as strong. It’s important to always empower, and sometimes when rules are changed and you set that perception forth it sets that stigma of what it means to be like a girl.

USAT: What must be done next to reach gender equality in sports for girls and women?

MW: I truly do believe that we’re on a really strong path right now to gender equality both on and off the field of play. For our generation we’ve been afforded so many opportunities because of the generations before us. We have to keep empowering for the future generations and remain involved in sports. We have to push forward and continue empowering the next generation so they have the same or hopefully better opportunities than we have today.

USAT: What advice would you give to a girl who wants to compete in sports but may not have access to it, whether that is because she needs adaptive resources or for other reasons?

MW: For any young girl, and it breaks my heart to know that there are young girls out there who don’t have access to sports that they should have, I think the key is finding a mentor and someone you can reach out to and find ways to get involved. It is unfortunate to know that there are communities where girls have to fight for those opportunities, but there are so many amazing programs where you can get involved in so many different ways. There are so many amazing organizations and individuals who are trying to help, and finding ways to get connected is an amazing way to respond. Whether it’s an aunt, uncle, guidance counselor or anyone else who can help get you involved in sports and use that as a platform to hopefully get you involved.

It’s very hard that there are some young girls who have to fight. That’s heart-wrenching because I’ve been very blessed, but I think the biggest thing is just finding a positive mentor in your life and using that to get to the correct resources.

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March 29, 2015
by: Cam Smith, USA Today