How Swimmer Mallory Weggemann Turned Tragedy Into Paralympic Gold

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Jason Duaine Hahn
·3 min read
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Nina Robinson Nina Robinson

When Mallory Weggemann lost her ability to walk after a medical procedure, she was determined not to let it take her passion for swimming.

Weggemann, a Minnesota native, was 18 when she received the first of three epidural injections to help treat back pain caused by postherpetic neuralgia, a common complication of shingles. But when receiving her final injection in January 2008, she was left paralyzed from the waist down for reasons she still doesn't understand.

"I walked into a room and I didn't walk out," Weggemann — who delves into her life story in new book, Limitless: The Power of Hope and Resilience to Overcome Circumstance, out March 2 — tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. "It's one of those things wherein the moment I didn't really know what was going on."

Without warning, the Minnesota native, who had been a competitive swimmer since the age of 7, found herself without the use of her legs and unsure of what to do next.

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Tess Derry/Getty

"That was part of the struggle I had," she recalls. "It was like I couldn't look and see people that looked like me, showing me what a path forward could look like. All I could find were medical journals, or research or things like that, but not stories of real-life people living."

Three months after the incident, Weggemann's sister urged her to attend a Paralympic swimming trials event at the University of Minnesota. Being near the water was rejuvenating, she says.

"We got to the pool that night, I just remember being at peace," Weggemann explains. "There were certain things that were still the same, even if it's something as silly as the way chlorine smells, it was something that was constant."

Read more about Mallory Weggemann's story in this week's issue of PEOPLE.

Courtesy Mallory Weggemann

Weggemann would hang on to that feeling, it eventually guiding her back into the pool and later to the 2009 CAN-AM Speedo Para Swim Meet. She shattered record after record there and in following tournaments, winning gold and bronze medals at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London.

"I buried my head and in a lot of ways, every time I broke a record, it was my way of proving that if I can break a world record, [I] must not be that physically disabled," she says. "Because I felt like I was fighting against the notion that people with disabilities are incapable of doing things."

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As she settled into this new chapter of her life, Weggemann was thrown another obstacle — in 2014, a shower seat broke under her at a New York hotel, and she suffered permanent nerve damage to her left arm. Weggemann tells PEOPLE she seriously considered retirement after the injury, but with the help of her high school swim coach, she was able to recover enough to participate in the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio.

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Now, she has her eyes set on the next Paralympic Games in Tokyo.

"Regardless of what happens there, it's already a success because I'm showing up today, and I'll show up tomorrow and the next day," she says. "And I can't allow it to be defined by a 31-second race."

To learn more about all the Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls, visit TeamUSA.org. Watch the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics this summer on NBC.