In January of 2008, Mallory Weggemann, an 18-year-old swimmer at the time (who is now a paralympic swimmer) was preparing to get an epidural steroid injection to treat her back pain she had been experiencing ever since she recovered from shingles.
And when the doctor slid the needle into her back — everything changed.
“I remember hearing the heart rate monitors starting to beep louder and louder,” recalls Weggemann, whose legs were bent upward behind her at her knees, in this week’s issue of PEOPLE. She continues, “Then I felt this spark of pain and heard a thud as my legs dropped onto the table.”
In that moment, she lost the ability to move her legs or feel anything below her waist.
And while doctors were not able to discover what had caused Weggemann’s paralysis, she spent the next six weeks in a Twin Cities hospital with physical therapists, learning how to navigate her new world in a wheelchair. As her life dramatically shifted, Weggemann was sought to sort out how life would be like as a paraplegic.
“I spent every day online trying to figure out what it all meant,” she says, adding, “I couldn’t look and see people that looked like me, showing me what a path forward could look like.”
Eventually, Weggemann found solace in swimming pools.
Weggemann is now no only a Paralympic swim champion (breaking 34 American records and 15 world records), but has also emerged as a popular public speaker, author of the new memoir Limitless: The Power of Hope and Resilience to Overcome Circumstance (out on March 2) and a relentless advocate for the disabled.
“It’s not the moments that define us,” she often tells the crowds that come to see her, “but how we respond to them.”
And her message was amplified after she fractured her left arm in an accident in 2014 that left her with permanent nerve and muscle damage.
“I don’t think there’s another competitor in the world that has her grit and work ethic and has to endure the pain levels that she does,” says Steve Van Dyne, her former high school swim coach, who is helping prepare her for the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Paralympics.
“During practice, she’ll block out the pain in her arm,” recalls coach Van Dyne, “but about a half hour after it’s over she usually throws up in the locker room because it’s so intense.”
It is a skill she has perfected over the past few years.
“I’m determined to use my energy to be a beacon for others,” says the 31-year-old champion swimmer, “because I still remember how scared and alone I felt when I was 18.”
With a background in the creative and educational fields, Amelia Finefrock is freelance writer, singer-songwriter and nanny based in Chicago.
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