The Road To Rio 2016 And The Fight To Rise Up

I remember the very day I sat in the driveway at my family’s home, my boyfriend (who is now fiancé) was sitting beside me and I broke. Every piece of me came untangled and for the first time I was truly ready to give up. It was a spring day in May of 2014; it had been nearly 3 months since I suffered a devastating injury to my left arm, at this point I had been robbed of the simplest of tasks in my everyday life, just getting ready for the day was daunting, let alone the idea of trying to return to training. For the first time in my athletic career, I brought up the word retirement. I knew I wasn’t ready, emotionally or mentally, but in that moment I couldn’t see a single scenario where I would be able to bounce back following my injury and I was ready to throw the towel in.

Lucky for me, I have the support of individuals who wouldn’t allow me to give up on my dreams, my love for the sport of swimming, and they believed in me when I didn’t. Not long after my former high school swim coach and I reconnected, we sat down and talked about me returning to the water and making an attempt to bounce back from injury and make a run for the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. When we were finally able to return to the water, after months of being inactive due to my injury, we realized just how devastating my injury was to my body. An athlete who was training anywhere from 2-4 hours a day, 6 days a week prior to my injury in March of 2014, could hardly make it 30 minutes every other day to start. We threw interval training out the window and went back to basics, every day was a fight with my own body to regain some form of “normalcy” with the constant mental comparisons to what I “used” to be able to do.

At this point in my life I was no stranger to adversity, I was paralyzed in 2008 at the age of 18 and I knew what it was like to start over again, to relearn how to live, to fight back, but this time it felt harder. When I was paralyzed I learned how to adapt my life with two strong arms and when my arm injury happened in March of 2014, one of those strong arms was taken from me. Mentally and emotionally I struggled with this injury almost more than I did my paralysis, it became one of the darkest times of my life. I knew the only way back to the light was to return to my one true love; the sport of swimming. So I did what I knew best, I did the very same thing I did following my paralysis, I turned to the water, my sanctuary.

Each practice brought its own challenges; for a while it felt like with every step forward we took ten steps back. With each passing day, the injury we were all hoping would heal over time remained constant with no sight of recovery. I was diagnosed with a devastating nerve condition that not only robs the affected limb of range of motion and function, but also causes devastating nerve pain. Hypersensitive to the world around me, even the feeling of the water on my skin caused severe pain. I didn’t know if I would ever stop spinning in circles, I was only training a few days a week, I was still unable to compete, swimming only one stroke and we were reaching 2015.

It was then that I realized, if I wanted to make it to the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games as a member of Team USA, then I had to push my body in ways that I had never pushed it before. It was then that I made a pact with myself, each day I would give my best, no matter how much or little I had to give, it would be my best. I knew if I did that then whatever the outcome of the 2016 Paralympic Trials were, I would know that I gave it everything I had. I began looking around and realized I had some incredible individuals in my corner, my parents, my boyfriend, my coach and my trainers. Each person had a role in pushing me each day and I knew as long as I leaned on them on the days I couldn’t lift myself up and as long as I gave my best, then no matter what it would be enough.

In March of 2015, I finally made my return to competition, I made it back on the US National team and was named to the 2015 Para Pan Am Games team; it felt like things were finally taking a turn in the right direction. In July of 2015 after months of conversation, my medical team officially notified me that my arm injury was in fact permanent damage. This meant that I would forever battle with the loss of function in my hand, unable to grip, with complete loss of range of motion in my wrist and two of my fingers. It meant that the tremors, the complete loss of control I face each time my arm seizes into a tremor wouldn’t be something that will go away with time. It meant that the unbearable pain that I faced daily was something I would now have to see as my new normal, that the life I had adapted to after my paralysis in 2008 would have to be adapted again, this time without two strong arms. Heartbroken and devastated I poured my energy into my swimming and went to the Para Pan Am Games a month later as a member of Team USA. It was my first international race since the London 2012 Games and my first time back to international competition since my arm injury. It didn’t matter that my arm was shutting down in tremors every time I raced, it didn’t matter that my first stop was to the restroom because I was sick to my stomach from pain, it didn’t matter that by the end I could hardly function mentally because my body was so broken down from the tremors and the pain, I was back to racing and that was all that mattered.

I left Toronto with five medals from the Para Pan Am Games, a bronze, two silver and two gold medals. It was then that I realized I had a chance at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games and I wasn’t ready to give up on that dream.

So for the next 10 months, we faced plenty of steps forward and plenty of steps backwards, but we continued to fight every day for the ultimate dream. Along the way, I realized that the only limits we have, are the ones that we create. I realized that circumstance doesn’t define us, how we react to the circumstances in our life is ultimately what will define us. Most of all though, I realized the power of community in ways I have never before witnessed. Every day I go to the pool, I have a coach at the end of my lane that believes in me in ways not many people ever have; he approaches each setback with grace and confidence that it is a part of the process. He pours everything he has into our workouts serving as my confidant when I need someone, serving as my comic relief when the mood needs to be lightened and serving as my motivator when I need someone to “tell me how it is.” At home, I have my now fiancé, who serves as my backbone each and every day, who has been there to celebrate the successes along the way, while also guide me through the setbacks; his belief in me has never wavered and that unconditional love is the strongest form of support you could ever ask for. Then, there are my parents, the two people in my life who have never doubted me, who have made countless sacrifices so I can see my dreams become a reality, who have picked me up when I am down and given me the courage to realize my full potential.

Now, as I sit here today I can say with pride that I am a member of Team USA going to the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, where I will have the honor of representing my country at my second Paralympic Games. As I sat in the room on July 3rd for our team naming, words cannot begin to describe the overwhelming emotion that hit as I wheeled out of that room to see my parents, fiancé and coach standing there to greet me as I notified them that I had in fact just been named to Team USA heading to Rio. In that moment, as my biggest supporters surrounded me, I realized that I will be in Rio come September because of them.

We often talk about athletic comebacks, what it takes to return to competition following devastating injuries and to me they all include two simple components: the will to never give in and the gift of an incredible community. Returning to competition, expecting yourself to perform better than you ever have following a devastating injury and in some cases permanent debilitating injuries, isn’t something any athlete can do alone. It takes a community, it takes a belief that you can be better, that you can fight back, that you can defy all odds and that you do not have to be a victim of your circumstance. A comeback is about the desire to redefine all limitations, having the courage to do what many would call impossible, the passion for what you love to do and most of all having the grace to know when you simply cannot do it alone.

So here we are nearly two and a half years following that dreaded day on March 5, 2014 and I am far from done, in fact, I have just begun.

August 3, 2016
The Huffington Post by: Mallory Weggemann