Para swimmer Mallory Weggemann poses for a portrait during the Team USA Tokyo 2020 Olympic shoot on November 22, 2019 in West Hollywood, California.
As Paralympic swimmer Mallory Weggemann reflects on her work thus far as an executive producer of TFA Productions, the film studio she co-founded, she can’t resist the tears that come, particularly when she thinks about the story of Grace Bunke in “Amazing Grace: Advocating For Childhood Cancer Research.”
Bunke was diagnosed with a spreading form of osteosarcoma (bone cancer) at the age of 11. She not only was a competitive swimmer — like Weggemann, the Paralympic gold medalist — but she was also pushing to update the years-old medicine used to treat children with her cancer. Tragically, Bunke’s cancer spread to her lungs, and she died March 25, 2018, the day before her 15th birthday.
“To see the depth that a young girl can bring to the community around her and how much she connected so many … to bring that story to life, that’s what it is about,” Weggemann said.
Weggemann and husband Jeremy, or “Jay,” said it is their purpose to share “authentic” stories of disabled people that represents the disability community. Their work represents athletes, connects them to brands, and, under the name TFA Productions, produces films that seek to share stories of disabled people.
Weggemann knows the importance of her work, and how rarely disabled people are represented in the media. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports there are 61 million disabled adults in the United States. That makes up 26 percent of the country’s population, yet, according to GLAAD, which publishes an annual report analyzing underrepresented groups in media, only 3.1 percent of characters in 2019-20 primetime scripted television series had a disability. And nearly all of those characters were played by able-bodied, or non-disabled, people.
Weggemann said representation of disabled people in the media has improved over the last few years. And indeed, GLAAD reports that 3.1 percent is an all-time high. But there is still much work to do.
“We are not where we should be, but we are making progress,” Weggemann said. “Instead of us complaining about how we are not where we want to be, the power comes in doing our parts to fan the flame that is growing, help it grow, and continue to push it forward.”
Weggemann met her husband Jay in 2011 at various events. At the time, Jay was a sports agent for athletes, and Mallory was looking for an agent to represent herself. She started talking with Jay, and, after seeking advice from her father, the two started working together in an athlete-agent capacity.
They traveled together, and they eventually began dating. Mallory said her and Jay’s professional missions aligned, and they wondered what their professional careers had in store.
“When we started dating, you kind of sit around and daydream about where you see things going,” Mallory said. “We had big audacious goals. We would talk about all the things we hoped to do with our careers and different things. But the interesting thing is … we never really talked about, ‘Oh, let’s go start a production studio.’”
But in 2014 or 2015, they saw potential in their mutual interests in sports, and Mallory inspired Jay to focus more on the Paralympic Games. Roughly a year later, they married.
Together, they have produced two films (“Empty Net” and“ Fresh Tracks”) with a third in the mix. All content has been about disabled athletes. Neither Mallory nor Jay had produced films prior to TFA Productions.
Now, Mallory said she’s seeing the long hours filmmakers put into their work.
“I joke all the time that being an athlete is glamorous compared to being on the other side of this job,” Mallory said.
Mallory said the stories of people with spinal cord injuries resonate most with her. She got her spinal cord injury when she was 18 years old after a series of injections to treat shingles, and she said she felt lost immediately thereafter.
While Paralympic swimming gave her a renewed sense of purpose, sharing stories serves as a reminder that her life stretches far beyond what she earns in the swimming pool. And the timeless stories they tell, like Bunke’s, will have a lasting impact for generations to come.
“There’s something so humbling about being involved with some of these incredible projects, and at the end of the day, it’s not about you,” she said. “It’s not supposed to be about you.”