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Unstoppable: How Paralympian Mallory Weggemann made incredible accomplishments despite paralysis

You are worthy of all things you have the courage not only dream, but pursue. I had the pleasure of interviewing Mallory Weggemann. Mallory Weggemann is a record-setting, two-time Paralympic swimmer for Team USA. She has set fifteen world records and thirty-four American records, and is also the recipient of an ESPY Award, a 15-time […]

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You are worthy of all things you have the courage not only dream, but pursue.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Mallory Weggemann. Mallory Weggemann is a record-setting, two-time Paralympic swimmer for Team USA. She has set fifteen world records and thirty-four American records, and is also the recipient of an ESPY Award, a 15-time World Champion, and a Paralympic gold and bronze medalist. Weggemann has also served as a commentator on NBC for the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Games, the first female reporter in a wheelchair ever to serve in that capacity. Weggemann has established herself as a leader outside of the pool, as well; she is an inclusion advocate serving on the Advisory Board of Disability for Delta Air Lines as well as a cofounder and co-CEO of TFA Group, a social impact agency and production studio. A highly sought-after motivational speaker, Weggemann has presented at numerous Fortune 500 companies, including Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, Comcast, PepsiCo, Northwestern Mutual, Aetna, Accenture, Delta Air Lines, and Deloitte. Learn more at www.malloryweggemannusa.com.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you share with us the “backstory” that led you to your career path in professional sports?

On January 21, 2008, at the age of 18, I was paralyzed due to complications following an epidural injection for back pain — following my injury I found myself consumed with fear and uncertainty for what my future would hold. Although, fortunately for me I found my way back to the sport of swimming within months of my paralysis. A month after being discharged from the hospital I wheeled into my family’s kitchen for breakfast, it was the first Saturday of April and it was then that my sister read an article in our local newspaper about the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Trials for swimming that were being held at the University of Minnesota, not far from our family’s home. The youngest of three girls swimming was a way of life for us — with both my oldest sisters swimming competitively I began competing at the age of 7. Spending my entire childhood around the pool, eleven years of which competing myself I was intrigued, so that evening my sister and I went to the pool as spectators — it was our first exposure to the Paralympic movement and that evening a felt a sense of hope for the first time since my injury. That evening as we looked to the pool deck from the stands I said to my sister, “Maybe one day I could be there,” just two days later I returned to the pool with my father and got back in the water for the first time since my paralysis just two-and-a-half months prior. You could say the rest was history as just a year later I made our US National Team and a few months prior to the two-year-anniversary of my paralysis I became a 5-time World Champion.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career? What were the lessons or takeaways that you took out of that story?

I think one of the most interesting lessons I have learned from my career is to be willing to fail — putting yourself out there when you are the favorite to win is easy, but showing up as the underdog and being unapologetic about your pursuit takes courage. I have seen both sides of the coin in my career — becoming at 15-time World Recorder holder and winning Paralympic Gold just over four years following my paralysis, while also placing 11th at the 2016 Paralympic Games in the event I was the reigning gold medalist from the London 2012 Games. Yet, for me that wasn’t a failure — taking 11th in an event I dreamed of defending my Paralympic Gold was a reminder that at the end of the day all we can do is give our best, it really is that simple. I had come off a nearly career ending injury in 2014 and despite permanent damage to the nerves in my left arm I fought for every inch of my dream to represent Team USA at the 2016 Games — it was there that I learned the power in our willingness to fail. Truth is, failing is an inevitable part of life, but the only true failure is never even trying in the first place.

What would you advise a young person who wants to emulate your success?

Remember, it isn’t the circumstances in your life that define who you are or what you are capable of — it is the choices you make and the way in which you show up the defines you. Adversity will strike, but having the resilience to get up, time and time again, no matter how long it takes — that is the difference between chasing your dreams and settling for the version that fear tries to convince us is safe. Your own limitless potential exists when you honor your journey, living your truth rather than the version of yourself you feel you are “supposed” to be and when you find the courage to know that you are more than your circumstance.

Is there a person that made a profound impact on your life? Can you share a story?

My husband — he is my world. We meet following my paralysis and he taught me the importance of the simplicities in life — whether it be something as simple as finding the confidence to wear shorts again, empowering me to find my voice, or showing me the power love has to persevere all. He laughs with me through the awkward moments in life, supports me through the depths and celebrates the achievements — but at the end of the day, he reminds me that love is all encompassing.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about what it is like being a professional sports player?

That as an athlete you are “just an athlete” — I am also an author, motivational speaker, co-ceo of TFA Group (a production studio and social impact agency), executive producer, wife, dog mom, daughter, sister, friend and member of my community. Being an athlete is just one part of my identity, not my entire identity.

Ok super. Let’s now move to the main part of our discussion. How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting causes you are working on right now?

My husband and I believe in the power of leading with purpose — as a result we have built TFA Group, a social impact agency and production studio and utilize the power of storytelling to spark a conversation and change perception of disability in our society. It is our hope that through our work we can collectively do our part to create greater inclusion for individuals with disabilities.

What methods are you using to most effectively share your cause with the world?

I feel beyond fortunate to be able to utilize my passion of writing to empower others through social media, my speaking career and as an author. I truly believe that we all have a story and it is my hope that through sharing my own I can help empower others to honor theirs — that was the entire motivation behind my book, LIMITLESS — to empower others to find their own light within.

Can you share with us the story behind why you chose to take up this particular cause?

For me, I know the depths of pain that I felt in 2008 after my paralysis — it is my desire to give that day meaning and it is as simple as effecting change, even if just for one person. If I can empower one person in a way that makes a difference in their world than that gives January 21, 2008 meaning. Whether it be as an athlete representing Team USA and the Paralympic movement at large, through my speaking career, the work my husband and I are doing with TFA Group and the stories we are sharing, or through LIMITLESS — it is my greatest desire to do my part to make sure our future generation doesn’t have to ask, “what about me?”

Can you share with us a story about a person who was impacted by your cause?

All of them are so meaningful. From getting messages from individuals who have shared that my husband and I’s love story has inspired them to know that love exists for them even if they haven’t found it yet, to messages from mothers of children with disabilities, to people reaching out saying that my story gave them the strength to not give up. The ripple effect is such a powerful force and I am beyond grateful to the individuals who have graciously opened their heart to my journey and in return shared their own with me.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Other people’s perception of you is not a reflection of who you are or what you are capable of, but rather their own insecurities, ignorance and unconscious bias — that isn’t for you to carry. Following my paralysis I had a really hard time with the outpouring of comments from others — strangers in the grocery store, by passers in the airport, you name it and it felt like any time I left the comfort of my home I was at the mercy of others comments, simply because I roll rather than step. To this day I still receive those comments, but I have learned that they aren’t a reflection of me, but rather the person saying them and that is such an important lesson in life. We will all have naysayers, doubters and even bullies that we encounter — but don’t let their insecurities become yours.
  2. You are worthy of all things you have the courage not only dream, but pursue. This feeds in to the above one a bit, but I struggled with feeling like the big dreams and ambitions where for me — as if the minute I became paralyzed I had this perceived glass ceiling placed on me. I just want to remind anyone reading this, we all carry circumstances in life, but we are more — they don’t define us or who we will become, only we have the power to do that. Chase the big scary dream, believe that you are worthy and prove that the glass ceiling doesn’t exist in the first place.
  3. You CAN become what you don’t see. It is easy to feel discouraged, to get caught up in the concept that it is hard to become what you cannot see, but you can and honestly, it is the very reason you should — to pave a path forward for our next generation. As a female living with a disability I have felt myself yearn to see representation, a path forward showing what is possible and it was really challenging at first when I didn’t feel represented, but I quickly learned that sometimes we have to find the courage to go out and fill the void rather than focus on it.
  4. Words matter. We are all constantly telling a story and the narrative we choose to share has an impact. What we tell ourselves and what we tell others — the words we use change the lenses in which we see the world around us and ourselves. Remember to use them wisely. I am not a woman suffering from a spinal cord injury, I am a woman living with a spinal cord injury. The difference between the meaning of those two phrases in how others perceive me and how I perceive myself is monumental, yet it all comes down to one word.
  5. Self-love is the most important gift we can give ourselves. This feeds off of everything above — because when you take the time to love yourself, unconditionally, you know who you are, what your worth is and you have the confidence required to not just live your life unapologetically, but be supportive of others. I truly believe that the phrase, you cannot fully love another until you love yourself, is true. It goes in line with the other phrase we have often heard — hurt people, hurt people. We must all find the courage to do the work, to look in the mirror and learn to love and appreciate the reflection we see — that is when we have the power to lead a life of purpose, to make a difference and leave an impact on this world, but it all starts with ourselves.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you explain how that was relevant in your life?

Growing up my dad told my sisters and I, “you are the best, you can make a difference and you can change the world.” Every night as he and my mom tucked us into bed we heard those words and even to this day as an adult I regularly hear them from my father. To me they are a reminder — that when you give your best, each day, you in return will make a difference and the ripple effect that follows has the power to change the world. Those words serve as my guiding compass, I turn to them daily and am reminded the how each action and choice we make has the power to effectuate change in our world.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Politics, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Reese Witherspoon — she is such a force to be reckoned with, serving as a trail blazer for others. Admittedly I have been a fan of hers since her days as Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, but to see what she has done with Hello Sunshine is remarkable — she saw a void when it came to equality for women in entertainment and so she went and filled it. I have thoroughly enjoyed following her career and in many ways, she has empowered me in my own — there is this concept, that it is hard to become what you cannot see, she created a path forward so others can see what is possible, inspiring our next generation.

How can our readers follow you online?

I am active on Instagram (@malloryweggemann), Facebook and Twitter (@malloryweggeman) — I would love for you to join my community, I truly do believe in the power of connection on social media to spark a conversation!

Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was so inspiring

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