- Mallory Weggemann has recovered from injuries multiple times, but she said she never lost sight of Tokyo.
- The postponement of the 2020 games was devastating, as it meant waiting another year to become a mom.
- Weggemann told Insider she wants to be the role model she never saw when she was first injured.
- This article is part of our series “The Gold Plan,” which highlights Olympians and their values.
Mallory Weggemann started swimming competitively at just seven years old in Minnesota.
However in 2008, when Weggemann was 18, a spinal injury left her thinking she’d never swim again.
But Weggemann recovered, got back in the water, and went on to compete at two Paralympic Games, winning gold at London in 2012 and becoming a 12-time world champion.
Two years later, permanent nerve damage to Weggemann’s left arm threw her swimming future into question once again. But she didn’t let this setback defeat her and went on to compete in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
She’s now gearing up for Tokyo’s Paralympics, postponed from 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Weggemann told Insider this year’s games are a culmination of her triumph and trials over the past nine years – which included an 18-month stint in which she couldn’t even get into a pool and a hospital stay that lasted two and a half weeks. Through it all, Weggemann said she never stopped thinking about Tokyo.
“By the time we get there, it’ll have been nine years of fighting for the same dream,” Weggemann said.
“It’s always been Tokyo.”
Postponing the Paralympics meant postponing motherhood
At the start of the pandemic, when most people were unsure how much the coronavirus would disrupt the world, Weggemann had blinders on, she said.
She thought the virus would be more contained, like the Zika virus outbreak in the days leading up to Rio. Her local training facilities shut down before the official postponement of the games, and Weggemann had no access to a pool for three months.
She eventually got back into the water, using a colleague’s backyard pool to train.
“I trained on a resistance band tied to their diving board for about five weeks,” she said, before finally being able to go back to a lap pool and gym.
On top of training challenges, there was an extra layer of disappointment for the swimmer – delaying the games meant delaying becoming a mom.
We’ve all fought through, made sacrifices, experienced heartbreak and tragedy, and now we are here as athletes with that shared experience.
She and her husband had always said they’d have a baby after Tokyo, and it was hard for Weggemann to accept the new timeline.
“My logical athlete mentality kicked in, but my heart took a little while to catch up,” she said.
The postponement was “heartbreaking,” and Weggemann, who’s now 32, said she still has days when she wishes she had a baby already.
But ultimately, Tokyo is her focus.
While not every athlete has had to put their family on hold, Weggemann said she thinks there will be a powerful sense of camaraderie among competitors at the games because of what they all endured during the pandemic.
“We’ve all fought through, made sacrifices, experienced heartbreak and tragedy, and now we are here as athletes with that shared experience,” she said.
Weggemann’s training prioritizes recovery
Weggemann trains five days a week, both in the pool and at the gym, alternating higher and lower intensity workouts before taking the full weekend off to recover.
- Monday: One and a half hours of strength and conditioning, two hours of swimming, 45 minutes of preventive work (such as a soft-tissue massage or laser therapy)
- Tuesday: two hours of swimming
- Wednesday: mental performance session, two hours of swimming, preventive work
- Thursday: one lifting workout, one swimming session
- Friday: two hours of swimming
She no longer swims twice a day, having learned it’s more valuable to do one session “intentionally” and recover fully before going again.
Her weekends are as much about recharging mentally as recovering physically. Weggemann has sessions with a mental-performance coach to help her be more intentional in her training.
Intuitive eating helps Weggemann stay healthy
Weggemann made the conscious decision not to track her calories or macros, having seen a loved one struggle with disordered eating.
She eats intuitively but makes sure she doesn’t get too lean when her training increases before a big event like the Paralympics.
“I’m not necessarily trying to gain weight. I’m not necessarily trying to lose weight. I’m just trying to make sure my body has what it needs to get through, refuel, and aid in recovery,” Weggemann said.
When she starts to crave more fats, she eats more avocados, nut butters, or coconut oil, and the same goes for other food groups. “I’ll know when I need more carbs because I’ll start craving things like potatoes, pasta, corn, and rice.”
On intense training days, Weggemann eats regular snacks rather than just lunch because her spinal-cord injury makes her digest slower, and she feels sick if she eats too much. Her typical day of eating might look like:
- Breakfast: hard-boiled eggs and yogurt with berries; or oatmeal with milk, almond or peanut butter, chia seeds, berries, and protein powder
- Regular snacks: smoothies made from avocado, almond butter, yogurt, oats, and spinach
- Dinner: a meat-based skillet dish or grilled pork chops with vegetables
Weggemann drinks fresh green juices regularly, packed with ingredients like celery and ginger to help with inflammation.
Weggemann wants to be the representation she never had
Weggemann hopes to change the world by being the role model she needed when she was paralyzed in 2008.
“I didn’t see a path forward,” she said. “I didn’t see what could be for a woman with a disability.”
When Weggemann first got back into a pool, she knew very little about competitive adaptive sport – swimming was just a way to cope: “I’m not who I am without swimming,” she said.
But after watching the Paralympic swimming trials at the University of Minnesota, chatting with the US coaches, and learning more about her options, Weggemann realized her swimming career didn’t have to be over.
Her journey is documented in her new book, “Limitless,” which she said is “rooted in the idea of changing perception.”
As the Paralympics draw closer, Weggemann is of course vying for a place on the podium. The happiest moment of her life wasn’t winning gold in London though, but placing fifth in Rio for the 200 meters with a career-best time.
Every single one of us carries circumstance in our life, but we are more than the circumstance we have faced.
“Going into those games thinking if I didn’t win gold in this ‘comeback,’ I was a complete failure, I finished my race, looked to the stands, and saw my family standing as strong as they were when I wheeled up to the starting blocks minutes prior, and I realized that that’s success, not the gold medal,” she said.
That moment reminds Weggemann that the journey is more important than the outcome.
“I’m so proud of that race, but I’m more proud of everything it represented and the people that surrounded me in that moment,” she said. “Every single one of us carries circumstance in our life, but we are more than the circumstance we have faced.”