Mallory Weggemann Comes Full Circle At Pool That Inspired Paralympic Dream
by Karen Price
Mallory Weggemann at the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials - Swimming on June 19, 2021 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
MINNEAPOLIS — Mallory Weggemann knew there was going to come a point this weekend where she was going to break down and cry.
“I think (Saturday) is going to be the night,” she said. “Now that I’m done racing it’s going to all hit me. We’ve been training so hard and I feel so strong. I’ve been saying lately that I feel like I’m at the trifecta. I’m physically stronger than I’ve ever been, I’m mentally stronger than I’ve ever been, and I’m emotionally at that place of calmness that you hope to be in. And that’s saying a lot, with the journey we’ve been on since the Rio Games.”
Weggemann won four of her six events this weekend, including the 200-meter individual medley and the 50-meter freestyle on Saturday, and finished second in the other two. On Sunday, she’s expected to be named to her third U.S. Paralympic Team. And she can trace all of it back to the very pool in which she raced this weekend.
In April 2008, Weggemann’s sister brought her to watch the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials for Swimming at the Jean K. Freeman Aquatic Center on the University of Minnesota campus. She was just 18, and two and a half months earlier had become paralyzed from the waist down following a series of epidural shots to treat shingles. She remembers leaning over the railing and watching as athletes with all types of disabilities competed for the chance to go to the Paralympic Games Beijing 2008.
“In a lot of ways, watching those athletes all those years ago is something that probably saved my life,” she said. “I got back in the pool in lane one here at ‘The U’ two days later, and I raced in my first meet a few months after in lane eight, and everywhere I turn I just see the growth of that terrified young girl begin to heal and fight for a life that was worth living. To be here 13 years later fighting for my chance to represent Team USA on my third team, that’s a lot. I’ve been feeling all of the emotions. Strong and powerful, reflective and vulnerable, and everything in between.”
Weggemann, who grew up in Eagan, Minnesota, made her Paralympic debut in London in 2012 and won gold in the 50-meter freestyle and bronze in the 34 pt. 4x100-meter medley. After suffering an arm injury in 2014 and then being reclassified just before Rio, it was a battle to even make it to her second Paralympic Games. She didn’t medal, but that’s OK.
“I showed up to the fight and I kept fighting, and I’m so proud of that,” she said.
After Rio, she was out of swimming for two years following two reconstructive surgeries and a long rehab, but returned to compete at the world championships in 2019 and won gold in the 50-meter freestyle and 50-meter butterfly and silver in the 200-meter individual medley.
Then, of course, there was COVID.
Now Weggemann is 32, making her the oldest in her classification in every race this weekend, and she’s on a mission.
“I’m out to prove I can be just as fast, if not faster now, than I ever was,” she said. “I wanted to come here and see all of it come together.”
Consider that done.
On night one, Weggemann swam a personal best by about a half a second in the S7 100 backstroke. She finished in one minute, 22.68 seconds, which gives her the fastest time in the world this year. Her time in the 50-meter butterfly was 33.95 seconds, just off her own world record time of 33.81 seconds that she set at Trials on June 16, 2012.
Then on Saturday, in her next-to-last race of the meet, she won with a time of 2:50.90 in the 200-meter individual medley, again just off her own world record time of 2:48.43 that she set at the world championships in August 2010.
Weggemann’s goal for Tokyo is to swim in six individual events, and that’s not all.
“I want to let the times speak for themselves,” she said. “I want my record in the 50-meter fly. I broke it in Trials in 2012 and I want to get it again. And I want my record in the 200 IM. It’s been over a decade, it’s time for it to go.”
As lofty as those goals are, Weggemann still hopes to achieve something more in Tokyo. This weekend, she needed to look no farther than the railing over which she leaned as a teenager to remember exactly what.
“Getting behind those blocks is about something so much bigger than me,” she said. “I’m really going in with that energy of knowing how much the movement has changed and, frankly, saved my life. And knowing that there are going to be young girls and boys in every corner of the world that are going to be watching these Games, I hope that through what I choose to do on the field of play, and what my fellow competitors and teammates choose to do, we can empower some of those young athletes to go out and chase their dreams, too.”