2021 was supposed to be an off-year for Mallory Weggemann. She should have recently competed in her third Paralympic Games. She should have been focusing her time on family. She should have been planning for having children. And she should have had some extra time to promote her newly released memoir, Limitless: The Power of Hope and Resilience to Overcome Circumstances.
Instead, she’s in full training mode since the 2020 Tokyo Summer Paralympic Games were postponed due to COVID-19 and will now be held later this summer.
She’s swimming six days a week. She’s in strength and conditioning training two days a week. She dedicates time to sport psychology and mental performance, body recovery and “prehab” to prevent injuries as an elite athlete at age 32. She’s the co-CEO (along with her husband) of a social impact agency and production studio, TFA Group, that promotes and supports brands within the disability sport movement. She’s a motivational speaker. And, oh yeah, there’s the book promotion tour right in the middle of reaching that peak performance for the Paralympic Games.
“I feel like I’ve kind of got a lot of hats on, but I love everything that I’m doing,” Weggemann says. “I think that they all fuel each other.”
Chalk it up to another adjustment due to COVID-19. But Weggemann is no stranger to adjustments.
A swimmer at age 18 who was experiencing lingering effects from shingles, her third and final epidural injection for pain left her with paraplegia and loss of movement below her abdomen in 2008. Three months later, she was in a pool again. By 2009, she was breaking world records in the pool. She won gold in the 50-meter freestyle and a bronze medal in the 4×100-meter relay at the 2012 London Paralympics.
In 2014, she endured nerve damage to her arm after a hotel accident. She still competed in the 2016 Rio Paralympics and has maintained her focus toward the Tokyo Paralympics—even after setbacks, a pandemic, and a schedule that looks like we’re talking about an entire swim team instead of one single athlete.
“I think it’s been a little bit of a blessing in disguise being able to release Limitless at this time in our society and everything that we’ve gone through this past year,” she says. “It’s my biggest hope that it can be a light for people and a story that allows other people to not just hear my story but more so my experiences in a way that can empower them to honor their own journey.”
ABILITY Magazine recently spoke with Weggemann between a swimming session and a pop-up bookstore signing about training for her third Paralympic Games, her new status as an author, and how to change society’s perceptions of disability.
Josh Pate: Going into a Paralympic year, athletes schedule their training to be at peak performance at the right time. Then all of a sudden that got unplugged for you last year. How did the postponement of the Paralympics impact your preparation?
Weggemann: It’s interesting. One of the biggest things I noticed is that my body kind of goes autopilot, if you will, when we get into that six-month time frame. It’s interesting. I start to lean up. My strength starts to kick in in the weight room. My power starts to show up. All those things we’ve been building for, that started to happen last February of 2020, which is about when it kicked in going to Rio in 2016 and when it kicked going to London in 2012. It’s like clockwork. And then March came around and facilities shut down and it was like, OK. The hardest part was the first few weeks before the Games were postponed. We had lost access to training, and I was in my garage, just trying to figure it out. There was a lot of, I would say, making adjustments to reset the system, if you will. The one thing, though, that I found in that is, as Paralympians, we’ve had to overcome so many different aspects in our lives. We have mastered the power of adaptability. We understand pivoting. We get that in a very real way.
Josh Pate: People with disabilities make a living out of making adjustments in whatever way fits their lifestyle. You’re not immune to setbacks throughout your life and throughout your career. How do you summarize that and provide that hope or positive side for an audience?
Weggemann: There’s a lot that goes into anyone’s journey. At times it feels like you climb and you get a setback and you fall again. When I was 18 years old, I never in a million years saw my paralysis coming. It’s the last thing I would have ever thought could have happened to me. But it did. And that’s life. And yeah, it sucks. Let’s just be transparent on it. It was not easy. But we have to find ways to move forward beyond that, because life will have its blows. We’ll get knocked down. And we’ve got to find the strength and courage to get ourselves back up and realize that we are more than our circumstances. I was the 18-year-old girl who walked into a clinic for a procedure and never walked out. That was my story. But I’m not defined by that day or that moment in time.
Josh Pate: One way to view disability is that it’s a characteristic, just like hair color or eye color. A lot of times the general population takes a different tone toward disability. How do you combat that tone? How do you spread the message of, “This is just a characteristic of life, and meanwhile there are dozens of other great things that are going on. Let me tell you about them?”
Weggemann: First of all, when you have a disability that’s visible for people to see, it often feels like that’s the first and only thing that they see. I had to find a way to be extremely confident in my own skin and understand that there were certain things I was going to now have to do to allow myself to stand out as a person rather than stand out as an object with my wheelchair. I’m really proud of my disability, and I don’t need people to feel comfortable—like, I don’t need to walk again for people to feel comfortable. But I think there’s a normalizing of the perspective of it, like changing perception of what it looks like.
I tell people all the time there’s a difference between having a disability and being disabled. They’re two very different things. I proudly am a woman with a disability, but I am not disabled by my disability in any way, shape, or form. And so it just comes down to education. The biggest crossroad I think we’re at in our society right now is sparking a conversation in our society in a manner that changes perception of what disability is. Because we have it in our head as a society that individuals with disabilities are not equal, contributing members of our society. And that is completely and holistically untrue.
Josh Pate: You can achieve incredible success in a variety of different ways, and there’s still this elephant in the room of general society who just sometimes doesn’t see that success, even though it’s front and center in a gold medal, an ESPY Award, an entrepreneur, an author … By any other measure, that’s going to be a defining success for everyone.
Weggemann: And it’s interesting, because I think that when you live with a disability, people forget that we as humans are multidimensional. We are not one thing. I am not just a woman with a disability. I am a wife, a co-CEO, an executive producer, an athlete, a speaker, an author. All of these things. I’m not just someone in a wheelchair. It’s very interesting, and it’s something that I’ve talked a lot about too, even just for women. Women, more often than not, get pegged into where we need to choose our one thing. You’re either a mom or a businesswoman, but you can’t be both. It’s like, well, yeah, you can!
It’s very similar when you talk about disability. It’s interesting, because it’s kind of like society has put us in this bucket that we’re just one thing, and that one thing is instantly our disability and nothing else, because that’s the label that’s been stuck.
Josh Pate: It should be easy to answer to this question: What moved you to write this book? Obviously, life scenarios. But there’s a difference between living that and then sitting down to write the book, or to work on this massive project and undertaking. What led you to say, “This is the time we need to share my story”?
Weggemann: For me, first and foremost, I’ve always wanted to write a book, but I think in order to do that in the way that can hopefully have the largest impact possible for readers, I had to be at a point in my journey where I was ready for what that process would be, mentally and emotionally. And sitting down and writing a book on your journey when there’s been a lot of trauma and grief and adversity that you’ve had to overcome through that journey, you have to do it at the right time so you can fully honor it for what it is, not what you think it’s supposed to be.
For me, it’s been something that’s been kind of sitting on the backburner for a number of years, always on my radar, and always with the idea that I’ll know when the time is right. Spring of 2019 felt like the time was starting to come about. We started working on the proposal process, and next thing you know, I got an offer in December of 2019 and I was writing in January of 2020. For me, that was a very important thing, because for me, Limitless isn’t just about telling my story, it’s about sharing it in a way that can empower others to honor their journey. Because I do believe that “limitless,” as an idea and concept, it’s not this cutesy fluff statement, and it’s not meant to be ironic like, “Oh, I’m a girl in a wheelchair, I’m limitless!” For me it’s really about understanding that we all have circumstances that we’ll carry in our lives, and we also all have to understand and know that we are more than those circumstances. That, to me, is kind of a pivoting moment, when we all find our own inner limitless potential.
I think the timing was making sure that I was in a place where I could authentically honor that in a way that would allow me to tell my story and share it with readers in a fashion that could empower them. That’s what this process is about. It’s not about writing a book so I can say I’m an author. It’s about writing a book so that I can put my story together in a fashion and my experiences and the lessons I’ve learned to help impact somebody and give purpose, something good out of that day in 2008.
Josh Pate: Was it difficult at times to go through that?
Weggemann: It was. I journaled my entire process. The first journal I found from after my paralysis was three days following, when I was in the hospital. Going back and reading those journals, I don’t think I understood how much pain I was in in the moment, because I was in survival mode. Going back and reading the words of my 18- and 19- and 20-year-old self who was finding her way in this world was very empowering at times, because I’ll tell you, even then, that version of me, man, she was a firecracker! She was like—my younger self was not taking no for an answer from anyone. Some of those journals were just fantastic, I was like, “Oh, not a lot’s changed OK! I get it!” But she also—there were those moments of just heartbreak, not knowing what the path forward would be. Reading that was challenging. But I’m so glad that I did, and I’m glad that I was able to have those to turn to, because I wanted Limitless to be authentic to what my journey was, not what I perceive it to be 13 years later.
Those journals guided the whole process. That’s how the chapters came to life. Each chapter title is a theme, and there were themes that were just constantly themes during that time in my life in my journals. That’s how I formed the titles and the journey within. It was challenging but also very liberating.
Josh Pate: When you think about the Paralympic Games, your own personal journey to get there multiple times and be successful, the stories that other people have had who are also in that arena, it’s special; the Games are a special place. We hear the personal stories of overcoming and success and inspiration, and then we fail to honor the gold medals, the training involved for elite athletes, and the lifelong dedication. As you’re saying, you’re postponing children because of your elite status as a swimmer. How do you think our society can move toward that greater appreciation for the elite sport that the Paralympic Games are?
Weggemann: I think it really comes down to, every Paralympian has a backstory. Every individual has a backstory. But when you’re a Paralympic athlete, your backstory is very visual. We can all see that there’s a backstory there. And so it’s something we’ve all had to learn to be very open with. I think that with that, there’s a balance of understanding and appreciating the journey of a Paralympian that maybe got them to where they are today and put them into the Paralympic movement in the first place, while also respecting the work and the elite nature it takes to be a Paralympian and not allow the circumstances that qualify them to be a Paralympic athlete, whatever their impairment or disability might be, to diminish the success they have on the field of play.
I like to look at the Paralympic movement as a beautiful catalyst, to completely flip the narrative of what disability is and transcend the field of play and change perception in our society. Individuals who have physical disabilities are often looked at as if they’re physically incapable of doing something. That’s kind of how it goes. And when you watch a wheelchair rugby game or somebody who’s a double amputee running down the track on blades or a swimmer who’s paralyzed or a visually impaired alpine skier, completely blind, flying down a mountain with a guide and in the inner ear a microphone, you start to realize, “Wow! Not only are they doing it, but they’re excelling at it!” It’s not a secondary consolation prize for living a fulfilling life. People with disabilities are not only living, they are thriving. And just because our stories are marked by maybe an adversity or a hardship or being born with something that seems to be “a little different” than what we’ve coined to be normal doesn’t mean that that elite athletic accomplishment should be diminished.
That’s where I look to the Paralympic movement as changing that and getting people to realize that disability isn’t just a one-size-fits-all cookie cutter way of living. People with disabilities are, pardon my language, bad-asses, like other people, right?
Josh Pate: Yeah! For sure, I’m into that!
Weggemann: I love these conversations because, mind you, as an athlete, I think there’s something so cool about seeing the power of sports, like I was just saying, to just completely flip the narrative. But also what I’m doing outside of the pool. My husband and I co-own a social impact agency and production studio. Our entire production studio is built off of telling stories, particularly ones of individuals with disabilities, in a way that changes perception and sparks that conversation. What we’ve found is a lack of representation in media, and we’re doing our part to carry that torch in our little corner of the world, to change that. I love this conversation because, like I said, individuals with disabilities in our society aren’t just living, they’re thriving. And we need to tell those stories, because that’s what changes the conversation.
Josh Pate: Was there anything that caught your eye and caused you to say, “We need to fill this gap, and we’re going to do it”?
Weggemann: When I was 18 and newly injured, I had that immediate feeling of going out into the world and realizing that I didn’t see anybody I saw myself in. I could go to the Mall of America and shop for the day and not see anybody I saw myself in through the individuals moving about the mall to the employees working in the stores to the window display, on down the line. Nowhere did I see somebody I felt like I saw myself in.
As I got further into my journey… if I feel lost in this because I don’t see a path forward as a 20-year-old woman, what does a 6-year-old girl feel like for her future? She needs to know that there’s a path forward for her.
I still reference last year, in 2020, I had the honor to go to the Golden Globes. When I was there, I was so struck by the fact that the entire day, going through the red carpet, the awards show, the events following, I didn’t see a single other person with a disability that was visual. It was me and only me. The struggle we had of even accessibility on the red carpet. There were a few times when I literally had the gentlemen who were with me lifting my chair up steps with me in it to put me where I needed to be. It’s not that anyone did anything wrong, but it shows the unconscious bias that certain people didn’t even think about needing accessibility because they’ve never encountered a need for it. Which means that the epicenter of our entertainment and media industry, in an awards show, it’s an entire population of our society that’s not represented. And media is how we form perceptions. The stories we watch on TV, scripted or unscripted, whatever it may be, it’s like, a little kid deserves to sit on a couch and watch a movie with their friends and feel like they’re seen. I think that motivates us so much each day. It’s my motivation as an athlete and in my career outside of the pool to do my part so that that next generation doesn’t have to ask, “What about me?” I think that’s a really powerful part of this conversation.
Josh Pate: If we fast-forward 20-plus years from now, what does that perfectly accessible world look like? How would you envision that?
Weggemann: I think in a perfect world, say 20 years from now, you realize that it’s no longer about how we need to make it accessible for people. It’s about universal design. It’s just there. We don’t even think of it as being something that’s this special thing we need. It just exists because we have full inclusion in our society. Accessibility is one thing. It’s fundamental for a majority of people to even have a spot at that metaphorical table, if you will. We need accessibility so people can get to that table, and we need equal representation at that table.
But to have inclusion and true equality, that’s when voices are heard and respected at the table. In a perfect world, it naturally happens. We don’t even have to stop and make sure we think about that because it’s so ingrained in who we are that these are the various different ways that people move about our world, and we need to make sure that universally it is accessible for all. It’s not the back door at a restaurant out there because we don’t want to do it at the front door. It’s just there. I know infrastructurally there are challenges, but in a dream world it would be literally true inclusion, where we are all equal and accessibility is something that just universally exists.
Josh Pate: Hopefully we’ll get there in 20-plus years. I’ll hold you to that, OK?
Weggemann: Oh, gosh, I sure hope so!
Photos by Sean Berry and Christopher Weggemann
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