Triumph over Tragedy: A Moment with Mallory Weggemann
What was supposed to be a routine procedure to treat chronic back pain proved to turn Mallory’s life on its head, completely paralyzing her from the waist down. Take a second to imagine that, having your entire life – of which for Mallory was soon to be that of a collegiate Division 1 swimmer– being stripped away in a matter of seconds. How would you react? What would be running through your mind? Would you lie down and give up, or fight back to regain control of your life?
When asked to reflect on that fateful day, Mallory mentioned that no one really knew what had truly transpired until a few hours after the procedure. As she said, “Normally, these types of epidurals for back pain cause you to lose all sensation and movement from the point of injection down. After those first few hours passed though, I still did not have any feeling back. That’s when it really started to hit me.”
She delved deeper into her real time emotions in recognizing “the fear of uncertainty, the ‘how could this happen,’ the ‘why me’s,’ the ‘what if’s,’ pretty much every emotion you could think of went through my head. It felt like everything was going through me like a freight train, while I was just trying to catch up to what was actually going on.”
In just a moment’s notice, Mallory’s independence was taken from her completely. She needed assistance with simple functions of washing her face, eating a meal, and getting dressed. But in relation to ‘lying down and giving up, or fighting back to regain control,’ she chose the latter, refusing to accept the situation at hand as her ultimate fate. She stresses that her subsequent positive trajectory was not easily accomplished. “It wasn’t as if I woke up one day, flipped the switch and moved on with life. It was a slow progression of things. I think it still is and probably will be for a while. After six years this is still fairly new.”
If there was a particular ‘tipping point’ in the initial recovery period, it probably came only a week after the procedure when a wave of frustration hit Mallory in relation to her physical therapy. At that point, she was at the complete mercy of her therapists and the tools they would use. “I would have belts around my waist with my therapists arms underneath mine to lift me out of my chair and onto the therapy bench so we could proceed with the sessions…I got so frustrated one day that I just said ‘don’t touch me.’ I said, ‘if I’m going to fall you can grab me, but I’m doing this on my own today.”
It ended up taking Mallory the entire hour of that session to simply transfer to the bench that was perfectly level with her wheelchair, only an inch apart. As she put it, “the fact that I was able to do that was a big step for me. It helped me say to myself, ‘this is what it is, it sucks, but I can’t just lay here and let it happen to me. I can fight against this. I can find a way to have my own independence.’ ”
It wasn’t long until Mallory found herself back in the water, re-pursuing her life’s passion; swimming. She reflected on what it was like to get back into the pool for the first time in saying, “above all, it was just so weird. Before my paralysis my swimming style was all legs, I had no upper body strength at all. So when I got back into the water and didn’t have that leg power, it was interesting to say the least. It was fun though because it was just a new challenge for me. It wasn’t me in my wheel chair. It was just me in the water…in those first 50 meters I completely forgot I was paralyzed.”
Mallory’s hard work and commitment to her love of swimming led her to winning multiple gold medals and breaking many world records at the 2009 and 2010 IPC World Swimming Championships. That ultimately enabled her to be on one of our world’s grandest stages as an athlete in the 2012 Summer Paralympic Games held in London.
Beyond the profound honor and humbling experience of representing her country in such a marquee world event, Mallory mentioned the experience of being in the Olympic Village as something that will always stay with her. “I remember going into the dining hall the first few days and seeing everyone in their team clothing sitting with their fellow teammates, truly honed in on the competition at hand. But as the competition evolved and came closer to the end, everyone just mixed. It was amazing to see that and watch everyone come together, no matter what was going on in the world, or the language barriers before us. None of that mattered.
Her entire Olympic experience wasn’t all smooth sailing though. As a Paralympic swimmer, Mallory, and all the other athletes are ranked into classifications from S1-S10 (S10 being of the highest ability in the field). Throughout her IPC swimming career, Mallory had been classified as an S7 swimmer enabling her to be ranked in the top two of each event she would be racing in. With that in mind, Mallory had set the goal for to capture 9 gold medals, one for each event she would be participating in at the Paralympic games. However, just days before the games’ commencement, Mallory learned that the IPC had reclassified her from S7 to S8, making her the only athlete in her classification who was without function in her legs.
“That was really tough, but the support I received from everyone around the world was absolutely incredible,” she said, “I remember before I went into the ready room for my 50 Meter Freestyle race I had somebody come up to me and say ‘go shock the world.’ From then on, I was in my own little world.”
At that stage in the game, as Mallory alluded to, everybody competing is dreaming of a medal. What it really comes down to in her mind is who wants it more. Mallory proceeded to go into detail about that historic race:
“Even though swimming is an individual sport I truly felt like I had a world of people behind me. Halfway through the race, at the 25m mark I was in 6th place, looking at the toes of the girl next to me, who was the current world record holder. After that I just buried my head, didn’t take a breath, and literally just thought of how much I had sacrificed for this one moment. I don’t know what I did, I just dug deep.”
Mallory ended up breaking the world record in that 50 Meter Freestyle race, something that only feeds her fire more towards what she wants to accomplish in the next games.
With all the struggle and hardship that has come with the past six years of Mallory’s life, many of us may expect that if she could go back to that fateful January 21st afternoon, she may wish for a different result. The reality is the complete opposite. If given the chance, Mallory would not change the fact that a routine procedure caused her to lose function in her legs for life, because the aftermath of what she has done since then is now what defines her.
She recalled being asked that question for the first time on The Today Show, just a year and a half after the incident; even she was shocked by her own answer at the time. In retrospect though, it was an answer that remains true to her. Mallory continued to address this on a broader scale in saying, “the adversities in life, the ups and the downs are what make us who we truly are. You can’t go through life without any adversity, and if people think that is possible than they are in a bit of denial…the journey I have had since January 21st, 2008 has forced me to reflect on my own life in ways that I probably never would have. I have learned in a very quick time, at a very young age how important the little things in life are.
After listening to Mallory’s story, it became more and more clear why she is a perfect fit for TEDxUNPlaza’s BRAVE: United in Action. Her story of courage and struggle, only to be triumphed by overwhelming success has inspired many around the world, reminding us to appreciate the subtle pleasures in life; because at a moment’s noticed, drastic change may rear its ugly head.
It should not come as a surprise that Mallory’s concept towards bravery is highly introspective, one that likely stems from the extenuating circumstances she has been dealt. In her mind, “Bravery is pushing past fear, and not allowing fear to consume you, or letting it stop us from doing things. We are all brave in our own right. Everyday we get up and face our own personal challenges, our dreams, and the problems in our society. So many people look at the word ‘bravery’ and get intimidated by it. If you reflect though, you will realize that we are all brave through our own stories, through our own lives.”
Currently, Mallory is working to conquer a strangely unfamiliar terrain, that of being able to regain the feeling of her feet resting beneath her again. While she has been told that she will never regain feeling or function in her legs, Mallory still wants to re-establish that memory of being able to walk; one that she admits is slipping away little by little as time presses on. Through a rigorous training regiment to boost up her functional core and upper-body strength, combined with custom fitted leg braces though, she hopes to be able to once again place one foot in front of the other, moving forward.
Learn more about her ‘Against all Odds, The Journey of New Mobility’ campaign through the video below and become involved through her Indiegogo page here.