Paralympic Champion Follows Her Dreams With Unstoppable Determination

Mallory Weggemann competes in the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Friedemann Vogel/Getty Images)

One of America’s most inspiring athletes is about to compete for the gold in Rio and once again live up to the words her father would say to her when he tucked her in each night in her childhood. “You’re the best, you can make a difference, you can change the world.”

Of course, the Summer Olympics ended last month but the Paralympics kicked off last week, and American swimmer Mallory Weggemann is set to shine. Yet as remarkable as her abilities in the pool are, what makes Mallory truly special is her incredible story of determination. Her story is a challenge to each of us as we consider the ways that we handle disappointments and setbacks in our own lives.

Mallory was a stand-out varsity swimmer in high school but never set her sights on making a career of it. Instead she always imagined her future would look quite typical: a career, a family, a quiet life in suburbia. But on January 21, 2008, that future was forever changed when she walked into a clinic for a routine procedure… and she never walked out.

The epidural injections that were supposed to help with the debilitating pain resulting from an extraordinarily severe case of mononucleosis and shingles instead paralyzed her spinal cord, leaving Mallory a paraplegic with complete loss of movement from her abdomen down. But instead of focusing on the life she lost, Mallory did the incredible, creating a new life for herself. Within four months of her paralysis, she was back in the swimming pool and less than two years later had set seven world records and 20 American records. Two years after that, she earned gold and bronze at the 2012 London Paralympics.

Now, in addition to competing at the most elite level, Mallory is a national speaker, delivering messages that are not only inspirational, but also offer valuable lessons in leadership, attitude, and survival in the face of tremendous odds. Mallory has even taken to the international stage, speaking to the United Nations General Assembly in August 2013 about the nature of bravery.

“I believe that everybody has a disability,” she explained, as her words were translated into dozens of languages. “Mine is evident—you really can’t miss it: I’m the one sitting up on stage. But we all have those things that can hold us back in life if we let them. We all live with some form of disability, whether it be physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, financial, familial, and the list goes on. But where I believe bravery steps in is when we choose—regardless of our situation and regardless of our circumstances—that we are going to rise above and we are going to push forward. We are going to achieve our dreams and we are not going to let it stop us. In fact, sometimes, that’s the most courageous act of bravery there is—not allowing circumstance to define us and not allowing fear to hold us back. We have the ability to be brave and to fight for what we believe and to live our lives with passion and with heart—and to rise above fear and to push forward.”

September 16, 2016
Forbes by: Don Yaeger