Twin Cities Paralympic swimmer aiming for more gold in Rio Games

Mallory Weggemann does one last training session before leaving for the 2016 Summer Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro at Life Time Fitness in Lakeville on Thursday. Tom Baker for MPR News

Mallory Weggemann captured gold in the 2012 Paralympic Games but a severe hand injury in 2014 made retirement, not Rio, a likelihood.

The Eagan swimmer, already paralyzed from the waist down, was now saddled with nerve damage and pain in her left hand.

"I didn't know if I'd make it back into the sport of swimming, and I didn't know I'd be the athlete I once was," she said. "I didn't know I'd be able to make it to Rio."

But on Thursday, Weggemann basked in the support of more than 300 people as they cheered her in the Life Time Fitness gymnasium in Lakeville, where she's been training. She qualified for seven events in Rio and leaves Friday for the USA Paralympics team camp before going to Rio, her second Paralympics.

"It's more special, it's more emotional this time around than it was in 2012," the 27-year-old said. "It's really special because it's really taken a community to get me to this point."

Mallory Weggemann won gold in the women's 50-meter freestyle S8 at the London 2012 Paralympic Games. Christopher Lee | Getty Images 2012
For her comeback she enlisted her one-time coach.

"It's been a journey," said Steve Van Dyne, who coached Weggemann in elementary school and at Eagan High School. "But we knew she had it in her because once you're in that Paralympic world, that attitude is not going away."

It was solidified last year when Weggemann snagged five medals at the Parapan American Games in Toronto.

Weggemann began competitive swimming at 7. She became a paraplegic in 2008 from an epidural injection for a back pain.

Weggemann returned to swimming in 2009 as a para-athlete. That same year she won five gold medals at the International Paralympic Committee's swimming world championships in Rio.

Weggemann would go on to smash dozens of American records and 15 world records.

She also won the Best Female Athlete with a Disability ESPY Award in 2011.

In addition to a gold medal in the 50-meter, Weggemann and teammates snagged the bronze in the 4x100 medley at the 2012 Paralympic Games. But Rio has a special place in her heart.

"Rio is where I won my very first medal so I'm really excited about going back," she said. "I'll be coming full circle."

Weggemann swims two hours a day, five days a week. She hits the weights for an hour three days a week. Thursday was her last training before team camp.

Weggemann receives a sword salute at a sendoff.
Mallory Weggemann receives a sword salute at a sendoff celebration at Life Time Fitness in Lakeville on Thursday. Tom Baker for MPR News
Then the Lakeville South High School band rocked the gymnasium and youngsters, clasping American flags, stared in awe at Weggemann.

"It's an emotional ride, seeing that much love and support the day before you leave for the games — it definitely gives you the last boost of energy you need before leaving," she said.

Weggemann signed autographs for more than an hour and kids touched and tried on her 2012 gold medal.

Sisely Wessel, along with her mother and four siblings, also met Weggemann and got autographs. But the 10-year-old from Lakeville became a fan a couple of weeks ago when she swam in an adjacent pool while Weggemann did her training laps. Sisely noticed Weggemann plowed through the water using only her upper body.

"I tried to swim like her but it was really hard," she said. "It's amazing what she's able to do."

August 29, 2016
MPR News by: Emma Sapong