Paralympic Swimmer Mallory Weggemann Wants Athletes and Wheelchair Users to Realize 'Motherhood Is Possible'
Paralympic gold medalist Mallory Weggemann and her husband Jay Snyder have invited PEOPLE to follow their journey as they grow their family.
Mallory Weggemann's due date is drawing near.
"We hit 31 weeks, which is so surreal," the Paralympic gold medalist tells PEOPLE exclusively. "We're feeling good."
It hasn't been easy for the couple to reach this moment. Weggemann, 33 and her husband Jay Snyder have been through a long IVF journey, all while navigating Snyder's male-factor infertility and Weggemann's Paralympic swimming career.
Through it all, they were open with fans and followers about their struggles. "Jay was adamant that we have the conversation around male infertility," Weggemann says. "Society needed to see a couple who said, 'Actually, it's the non-disabled spouse that has the fertility struggles."
After several surgeries, more than 440 injections, two stim cycles and one unsuccessful transfer, Weggemann and Snyder, shared the exciting news with PEOPLE in August that their second egg transfer had worked and that they were expecting a baby in March.
Since then, Weggemann has been publicly documenting her pregnancy, refuting the idea that female athletes have to choose between their careers and motherhood and destigmatizing parents with disabilities. "So often we form our perceptions of what we think is possible based on what we see emulated in the world around us," she says.
It's why Weggemann feels so grateful to be able to share her healthy pregnancy. She even raced at the 2022 US Para Swimming Nationals in December when she was 26 weeks. "It was really special getting behind the starting blocks pregnant," she says. "I've loved the sport of swimming since I was a little kid, and to be able to share that in some way with Little One is something that I think I'll remember forever."
At the meet, she got a little reminder that she was swimming for two. "When I was getting set — I start with my knees to my chest and I rock forward onto my feet — Baby was giving me some kicks right in that upper left rib area," she recalls. "It was just that reminder of, we're literally doing this together."
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She loved it, even though swimming felt different with a baby inside, and her balance was slightly affected, "especially since I don't have a kick to help carry through, and I use my core so much to keep my body in alignment," she explains. "Pregnancy has further altered my center of gravity."
But even with her body changing, the world-class athlete still took silver in the 50m butterfly, and made it to finals in all three of her events.
It was an especially proud day for Weggemann, who knows how important it is for other female athletes to know that they can also be moms. "For so long it felt like it was an either/or conversation in athletics," she says. "It was powerful to be able to, in that moment, continue to be a part of this conversation that's happening in sports around this desire for female athletes to have the option to continue their careers through parenthood and motherhood."
While she recognizes the challenges — "as an athlete, your body is the very vehicle to carry out your profession, but when you are becoming a mother, it is also the very vehicle to bring this little life into the world"— she is not dissuaded by "asking your body to do two things."
Another cause close to her heart: bringing awareness to disability representation in parenting.
"In the disabled community, we are still having conversations and fighting for equality and equity, and then you go and bring parenthood in addition to that," she says. "We in our society do not have great representation of showcasing individuals with disabilities as parents. We don't celebrate that."
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She continues: "You read all your parenting books, and nothing talks about how to navigate through adaptive parenting. You buy your products for the nursery, but nothing's out there giving you accessible options for integrating those products to care for your child. Even in healthcare, you go in for your ultrasound; you hope and pray you've got a good clinic that's updated with an accessible ultrasound table."
But, she says, "This moment is about something bigger than Baby and I. This moment, and hopefully the images that come from it, can show a path forward to other young women and girls who happen to be wheelchair users to see that motherhood is possible for them; to show other female athletes that there's a path forward to continue your career through that stage of your life if you choose, and to show society a way that can start chipping away at this unconscious bias that we put on individuals with disabilities and that we put on women as they lean into motherhood, of what their lives should be."
For the rest of her third trimester, Weggemann hopes to stay active by swimming and lifting, which she says is crucial for her physical and mental health. "I plan on doing that all the way up until Baby decides to arrive, unless my doctors say otherwise." Her ultimate goal is competing in the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games — with a toddler in tow — but for now her sights are set on her delivery in March.
Weggemann is actually preparing to face another hurdle that day: "Due to some of the complexities with my spinal cord injury, the safest way to get Baby into this world, and really the only way, is for me to have to receive an epidural" — which is how she became paralyzed 15 years ago during a medical procedure.
"That's challenging — I'm not going to sugarcoat it," she says. "I'm excited to meet Little One and hold them, and be together as a family, and figure out who they are, but the mechanism to actually get us to that moment is pretty big and heavy."
"There's going to be a lot of creating moments of space to try to process and prepare as best as I can for the reality that, in order to have what is going to be the most joyous day in our little family's life, I have to literally, relive the most traumatic day of my own."
The couple, who live in Eagen, Minnesota, plan to wind down in February, putting an end to work travel in time for Weggemann's sisters and mom to host a baby shower and to put the finishing touches on the baby's nursery. She and Jay also look forward to reveling in their last weeks as a family of two. "Yes, we are daydreaming about what it's going to be like to add Baby. What is it going to be like to see Jay hold our little one for the first time? What it's going to be like to bring them home and introduce them to [our dog] Sam ? We're so excited for all of those moments."
Most importantly, she can't wait to show the world that motherhood is still an option for athletes with a disability.
"At the meet, one of the officials told me how their 11-year-old daughter, who is a wheelchair user, had been following me on social media," she says. "She came into the kitchen one day and told her parents, "I didn't know that women in wheelchairs could have babies."
Hearing this meant the world to Weggemann and Snyder.
"That obviously strikes a chord with me because of disability, but I think it can resonate with people beyond disability," she says. "If there's one young girl out there, or young woman, or a man, or a couple, who see our story and realize, 'There's a path forward for us to be parents, we can do this,' then that's what this is all about."
"One 11-year-old girl now knows that someday, if she wants to have a family, she can have a family, and the fact that she has four wheels attached to her is not the reason she can't."