Mallory Weggemann competes at the 2019 World Para-swimming Championships on Sept. 13, 2019 in London.
MINNEAPOLIS — It’s a story Mallory Weggemann has shared many times.
Only, this time, it means so much more.
In April 2008, just three months after a medical procedure gone wrong left her paralyzed below the waist, her sister Kristen read a newspaper article about the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials for Swimming taking place that day at the nearby University of Minnesota.
The 19-year-old Weggemann, who had been a good but not necessarily elite high school swimmer, headed to campus that night, met a local coach on the pool deck after the competition and “within 48 hours I was back on the pool deck and returning to the water for the first time since my paralysis.”
Weggemann, now a two-time Paralympian in swimming with a gold and bronze medal to her name, and a regular on the motivational speaking circuit, shared this story the umpteenth time last month. But on this occasion the story was more than the beginning of her inspirational journey.
Instead Weggemann spoke in a hotel conference room back on the U of M campus, seated in her wheelchair next to two other elite U.S. Para athletes and the Mayor of Minneapolis, among others, while formally announcing the 2020 U.S. Paralympic Team Trials for cycling, swimming and track and field will be jointly held in the city, with the swimming portion taking place at the same Jean K. Freeman Aquatic Center where Weggemann rediscovered the sport nearly 12 years ago.
“To be able to come back here all these years later and see how far the movement has grown since 2008, where we’re at as we’re going into the 2020 Games is remarkable,” she said.
Weggemann, who is now 30 years old and lives in the same southern Twin Cities suburb of Eagan where she grew up, has competitive reasons for her optimism.
In September, she competed at the World Para Swimming Championships in London, where she won gold medals in the 50-meter butterfly and freestyle events, as well as a silver medal in the 200-meter IM.
Now a 15-time world champion, she’s diving into the pool next June fully intending to make her third Paralympic Games.
The symbolism — and significance — of the venue, however, are impossible to ignore.
“In 2008 when she came, she was literally wheeled in those doors,” her husband, Jeremy Snyder, said from the pool deck at the Freeman Aquatic Center, motioning to the balcony outside the main corridor, “and looked over the railing and was exposed to the Paralympic Games for the first time and saw herself and so many others, of what’s possible.”
Her story since has been a model of possibility, and perseverance.
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“When I got back into the pool, I started by racing 9-year-olds who were beating me,” she told Sports Illustrated years later.
By 2012, she was competing in front of raucous crowds at the Paralympic Games London 2012, winning a gold medal in the 50 free and a bronze medal as part of the 4x100 medley.
It was a remarkable turnaround for Weggemann, but only the beginning of her travails. Just before the Games, Weggemann was controversially reclassified from S7 to S8, putting her in a division with athletes who had some use of their lower bodies. That she was able to adapt and win a gold medal on short notice was seen as a massive success.
Two years later, Weggemann was using a hotel shower before an appearance on the “TODAY” show when the bench broke, sending her crashing to the floor. Nerve damage from the fall resulted in severe pain and violent spasms, not to mention a deep mental toll on the athlete. Giving up the sport was a real possibility, but not one Weggemann accepted. Competing two years after the fall at the Rio Games, where she raced in seven events and finished as high as fifth in two of them, was again seen as a huge success.
“Coming out with two fifth-place finishes was incredible,” said Snyder, who also works with his wife and other athletes as a brand manager.
And that Weggemann was able to reach the top of the podium again this year in London — in her first world championships in nine years — brings newfound optimism one year out from the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.
Now more than a decade into her Para swimming career, Weggemann has friends and family members who have never seen her compete in person. She’s already ensured the dates for next year’s trials, June 25-28, 2020, are on their calendars. It’ll be a special meet.
“I mean, I’m a Gopher, so being back at the University of Minnesota, how can you complain about that?” said Weggemann, who graduated with a degree in public relations. “And knowing that I’ll also be able to have family and friends and supporters who haven’t seen me compete at a Paralympics-style meet before being able to be there, and have my community that I’ve had the past 12 years here in Minnesota since everything happened, being able to (have that) support is incredible.”
And, just maybe, the next Mallory Weggemann will be watching.
Chrös McDougall has covered the Olympic and Paralympic movements for TeamUSA.org since 2009 on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.