Rio Paralympics 2016: Mallory Weggemann redefines limitations in quest for gold

Fate has offered Mallory Weggemann every opportunity to quit swimming.

She could have stopped in 2008, when an epidural injection strayed from its intended spot and left her paralyzed from the belly button down. Or after the frustration of the 2012 Paralympics, when a last-minute reclassification left her competing against swimmers who had use of their lower bodies. Or in 2014, when a fall in the shower rendered her left forearm permanently disabled.

Come Thursday morning, though, the 27-year-old Minneapolis native will be on the starting blocks in Rio preparing to swim the first of eight events at the 2016 Paralympic Games. Even in the wake of a sequence of events that can still leave her in tears when she recounts them years after the fact, the water remains her sanctuary.

“Swimming is as second nature as walking used to be for me, and it always has and always will be,” Weggemann said. “When I was injured, I did have to learn how to do certain things differently, but that creativity kept it interesting, it was kind of the spark, it made the sport fun in a way that I had never really experienced since back in the day when I was an age-group swimmer. In a lot of ways, the creativity that I had to use in the water to figure out how I was going to swim again, it kind of fell out and transferred into my everyday life.”

Weggemann’s creativity has been tested time and again in the past decade, beginning with a harrowing day more than eight years ago.

She had come down with shingles near the beginning of her senior year of high school and suffered a complication called postherpetic neuralgia, which left her with severe pain on her left flank. She finished her studies at home and in May 2007 began a series of steroid injections designed to ease the pain. The last of those was to be administered in January 2008.

“I remember being in the procedure room and my dad was at the head of the table with me,” she said. “They had me bending my legs at my knees — I was on my stomach — and they were gauging when the numbness hit from the injection. It seemed like in what was literally the blink of an eye, I heard a thud, and that was the sound of my legs hitting the table.”

Though that hadn’t happened with her previous injections, she assumed it was a temporary sensation. But after about two hours, she and her father began to connect the dots. It was another year and a half before she finally accepted that she would never walk again, but her life took on a new course that frigid January day.

The critical fork in the road for her came three months later, when her sister Kristen noticed an article in the local newspaper that the U.S. Paralympic swimming trials were being held at the University of Minnesota. The family loaded up Mallory and her wheelchair and went to watch the final day of competition, and two days after that she got back in the pool for the first time since her paralysis.

Despite being a self-described “all kick” swimmer in her able-bodied days, Weggemann maintained a surprising amount of muscle memory once she returned to the water. By the following year, she had become the dominant swimmer in the S7 classification, winning four individual events at the IPC short-course world championships in Rio.

That pattern continued on the road to the London Paralympics, and Weggemann lined up a program for those games that featured the realistic possibility of winning nine gold medals, which she had done at the world championships the year before.

Shortly before the Paralympics began, though, she was summoned for a classification appointment in London. She figured it was just a formality, but was flabbergasted when she was informed three days before the opening ceremony that she had been reclassified as an S8 swimmer. Para-sport classification can be a murky process, but the bottom line was Weggemann’s degree of difficulty increased exponentially on the eve of the biggest meet of her life.

“I mean, I don’t have any function from around my belly button down, and I’m racing girls that all walk and have some capacity to kick,” she said. “I’m watching them jump up and down in the ready room and stretch their legs and do their thing, and I’m sitting here looking at myself wondering how the heck I’m supposed to race these girls.”

Weggemann ended up reducing her planned program, with a focus on the 50-meter freestyle. Despite the odds against her, she won gold in that event and added a bronze as part of the U.S. 4x100 medley relay team while finishing out of the medals in four other events.

It wasn’t what she had envisioned the previous three years, but the experience only fueled her to keep pushing forward with an eye on the Rio Games. As it turned out, she would have to overcome one more unfathomable hurdle just to make the team.

On March 5, 2014, Weggemann was in a New York hotel room, up early to head to an interview with NBC’s “Today” show. The bench on which she was sitting while showering collapsed, sending her to the floor with her left arm absorbing most of her weight.

Painful as it was, she couldn’t have imagined even as it got worse in the coming days that she would eventually go four or five months with essentially no function from the elbow down, unable even to manipulate her wheelchair. She was diagnosed with CRPS, a chronic pain condition stemming from a nerve injury. She has regained some function in the arm and wears a brace on it when she is not competing, but it is considered a permanent injury.

When the extent of the damage became clear, Weggemann questioned whether it would even be possible to continue swimming competitively with only one limb functioning normally. Ultimately, she decided to try and fight through it, if only to prove to her “stubbornly independent” self that she had tried.

“It became a lot about redefining what’s possible, redefining limitations and looking at it as, we all have these challenges and we all have adversity and, unfortunately, it’s not only going to hit once throughout our lifetime,” she said. “We’re going to have it hit time and time again. And we have to find that strength to bounce back.”

Weggemann has, repeatedly, and she heads to Rio unburdened by predicted medal counts. Her focus is on competing to the best of her ability, then returning home from Rio and learning how to use full leg braces.

She’ll have a few months to perfect that task before Dec. 30, when she plans to walk down the aisle and marry her fiancé and agent, Jeremy Snyder.

“There was a lot of pressure on London,” she said. “This time around, life is going to go on, and I have a pretty beautiful life set up for when this is all over.”

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September 9, 2016
Sporting News by: Marc Lancaster