Friday, August 31, 2012
Paralympics - Stubborn Weggemann swims against adversity
By Tom Pilcher
LONDON (Reuters) - Feeling hopeless and defeated after a routine epidural injection for back pain in 2008 left her paralysed, Mallory Weggemann was taken to the U.S. Paralympic trials by her sister despite not wanting to go.
Days later the competitive swimmer was back in the pool and her life changed forever.
In July 2009 she broke her first world record in Canada and at the short course world championships in Rio de Janeiro in November she smashed six more.
Then in 2010 at the long course worlds in the Netherlands Weggemann bagged eight gold medals and one silver, finishing with nine world records.
"Everyone jokes that I'm stubborn but I think that personality trait is what has allowed me to move forward in life," Weggemann told Reuters ahead of her Paralympic Games debut on Saturday.
"I still have days where life gets me down. But if I wasn't paralysed I would still have hard days too. It's not because I'm paralysed that I have hard days. It's because I'm human."
After an appeal against the International Paralympics Committee (IPC) ruling to change her classification was rejected on Wednesday, 23-year-old Weggemann said she felt the system had "failed" her.
Weggemann will now race against athletes who have full function from the knee up whereas she has no feeling or movement from her belly button down.
She has overcome far greater adversity to get to London however. On January 21, 2008, two months shy of her 19th birthday, she entered hospital and never walked again.
"I said 'I'm going to walk out of here.' When that didn't happen after three weeks I started making lists in my head of all the things I would do once I walked again," the American said at a Procter and Gamble event.
"A few months later I realised I was putting roadblocks up for myself by saying all those things. What happens if I don't walk again?"
It was then that her sister stepped in having seen an article in the local newspaper, whisking Weggemann to the trials at the University of Minnesota just 20 minutes from their house.
"At that point in time, I had never heard of the Paralympics. I'd been a competitive swimmer since I was seven but I didn't want to go. My sister said 'No, you're going.'
"I saw athletes with all different disabilities and I saw them compete. Prosthetics, wheelchairs, walking canes, everything aside they were all in that pool.
"I remember the rush of emotions when I was introduced to the coaches later that evening, who had heard I was a swimmer. The passion I have for the sport came right back and I wanted to swim again.
"I came home on that Saturday night and told my parents I wanted to get in the water again. I don't think my parents thought I was really serious but on Monday I was back in the pool. Swimming saved me."
Before she was paralysed, Weggemann loved her social life but had an "horrific" upper body technique. Now she defies her condition to carve through the water at breathtaking speed.
"I had coaches who said I could be really, really good if I put my mind to it. But I said 'Nah I just love hanging out with my friends.' I was the social butterfly, I still am. There was definitely another level I could have taken my training to.
"When I was paralysed I saw it as a challenge. How far could I push my body? Before I was paralysed I was all kick, I was horrific with my upper body. Now I work with my new body and I have a whole different drive and determination."
Weggemann will need every ounce of this to overcome the disappointment of being one of 40 athletes to have their classifications changed before the start of the Games, a usual move by the IPC ahead of major championships.
Whatever the outcome of her first Paralympics, Weggemann is looking at the bigger picture after a chat with 2008 Beijing Games decathlon gold medallist Bryan Clay.
"Bryan told me to not forget about the journey and to soak it all in, because the Paralympics last for 10 days when you've trained for four years for it and it's easy to get wrapped up.
"So I'm going to soak it all in and enjoy it," she said, gazing over the River Thames and feeling like a "kid in a candy shop."
(Edited by Amlan Chakraborty)