Mallory Weggemann, LIMITLESS

Mallory Weggemann, LIMITLESS

“Asking for help does not make us weak. It’s honestly probably the strongest thing that we can do.” Paralympian swimmer Mallory Weggemann takes Zibby through the first few months of her paralysis and how the lessons she learned then have shaped the forward-thinking mentality she carries with her to this day. She shares her incredible story in her new book, Limitless, with the hope that it will empower readers to find the limitless potential we all have inside of us.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Mallory. Thank you so, so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I am beyond inspired by your story and your personality and everything. I can’t wait to talk to you. Thank you for coming to talk about Limitless.

Mallory Weggemann: Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Zibby: For people who aren’t familiar with your story, why don’t you give a synopsis of what happened and how you have overcome so much. Then we’ll talk all about the book. Give the basics if you don’t mind.

Mallory: The overview, I joke the long story short, but there’s really no short version of it. When I was eighteen years old, I had just graduated high school in June of 2007. In January of 2008, I went in for what was to be my third and final epidural injection for back pain. Unfortunately, due to complications from the procedure that day, I was left paralyzed as a result of the procedure. I think of January 21st, 2008. It was Monday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day. I had the day off from class. That was why we decided we were going to do it that day, because it was just a quick day procedure. I’d be home by afternoon. I’d be back at class Tuesday morning. That day has since been marked as what I’ve called my sudden moment of impact. For me, it was that unforeseen moment. There was no, even, forewarning. There was no idea on the radar that that was something that could happen that day. It was very simple matter of fact. Walk in, come home in the afternoon, go back to life the next morning. Everything but that occurred. At eighteen, two months before my nineteenth birthday, I was left at this crossroad of figuring out life. What was living as an individual with a spiral cord injury going to look like not just for tomorrow, but for my future tomorrows as you string them together? That was really overwhelming and incredibly challenging. There was a lot of hurt and frustration and anger that stemmed from that day and the events that occurred.

I look at that time in my life and there’s two moments that stick out so significantly for me. One was my first night home from the hospital. My parents were still working on creating an accessible room for me in the lower level of their home. My dad carried me upstairs to my bedroom. My mom got my things settled up there. As we got settled and they said good night and they left the room, it was just me left in the same room that I walked out of six weeks prior. That room looked the same as when I left it. I still had my books on my desk for spring semester. My clothes were just shoved in my closet because I didn’t want to do laundry that weekend, remnants of life that really wasn’t all that in the distant past but felt like an entire lifetime ago with the situation I was in. I realized that night that probably one of the most profound things I was going to have to do on this journey is the most simple thing. That was make the choice each morning if I’m going to get out of bed or if I’m going to stay in bed.

It sounds maybe a bit ridiculous. Lying in bed that night and seeing my wheelchair beside it and understanding the gravity of what I was facing, I realized that come morning, I had that. I had a choice. I could stay there. I could grieve. I could feel sorry for myself, rightfully so after what had happened, or I could get myself into my chair and slowly figure out getting myself dressed that morning on my own and doing the little things that I could do and then open that door and lean on my parents and my sisters and my community to help me piece the rest of the puzzle back together. I knew that that decision was going to set pace not just for what I do the next day, but what I would do in the following week and the month and years later. That choice was about something so much more of, what am I going to do tomorrow? That was a really big pace that I set when I chose that next morning to get out of bed and get into my wheelchair and start to fight. That doesn’t mean that every day since has been graceful. It’s been thirteen years. There’s days like yesterday where, frankly, being paralyzed is really hard. Then there’s days and weeks and months where I don’t think every think twice about it because it’s just what I know now. I look at that journey and that moment in my life where I had to make that decision. I’m so grateful for what I’ve learned these past thirteen years because I am who I am as a result of that day. It didn’t define me, but it is very much a part of the fabric of my being.

Zibby: Wow. Wait, so what happened yesterday?

Mallory: Some days, it’s just hard. I was sore from training. My arms were just shot. It felt like everything I tried to do was — when you don’t have the use of your legs and you use your arms for everything and you’re an athlete who’s not gentle on your body, some days the really hard training catches up to you. You forget how much you need those until everything’s just a little slower because you’re super sore from training. Honestly, it’s those silly little reminders where the normal task takes you a little bit longer. You’re dropping things because you’re moving different because you’re sore from the workout the previous day. It’s not always big things. It’s just those little reminders of, gosh, it would be a lot easier if I could just stand up right now. Then sometimes it’s more based on the perception that gets put on me of others when I leave the door of my home. Every day, it’s kind of a moving target. Like I said, there’s also weeks and months where I can go and it’s like I don’t even think twice about it because this is just what my life is now.

Zibby: First of all, just the attitude alone I feel like should earn you some sort of medal. The fact that in addition to approaching your life the way you did after this life-changing, forever-changing incident, you also happened to become a Paralympic athlete and award-winning, amazing, accomplished warrior athlete as well — you just googled Paralympics not even that long after you had been injured and were like, what’s this? and walked into the pool room and hid by the chlorine. Next thing you know, you’re winning medals all over and training thirteen years later. Tell me a little more about that. It’s one thing to get out of bed. It’s another thing to get back in the pool and all of that.

Mallory: It is. It’s interesting because one led to the other. I think that that’s such an important thing for us to realize. The idea of getting in the pool after becoming paralyzed might seem daunting to most people. While it was fairly abrupt, it was two and half months later, those little things that we do each day give you that courage within to tackle that bigger thing. I had been, each day, tackling that new little thing. Okay, I’m going to do this today for myself. I’m going to get dressed a hundred percent on my own today. I’m not going to have help no matter how long it takes me, just those really, quite frankly, little things that became the big things in my life. When I learned about swimming again, everything changed. It was interesting because it was complete chance. It was the first Saturday in April in 2008. I was now settled in my room downstairs. I wheeled into my family’s kitchen. I have two older sisters. My oldest one was home. She was reading our local newspaper here in the Twin Cities. There was an article about the 2008 Beijing Paralympic trials for swimming. They were being held at the University of Minnesota. Admittedly at that point in our lives, my family and I really didn’t know about the Paralympic movement. We didn’t know about adaptive sports. It wasn’t something that crossed out radar. When you’re injured, unfortunately, more often than not, you’re met with, here’s the way your life is going to be drastically different, and all the things to expect. It’s kind of doom and gloom, admittedly.

No one’s meeting you with that safety net of saying, but here’s how you can adapt and still go to college and finish your degree and if sport’s a part of your life, remain an active lifestyle, and all of those various things. At that point, I just had this really closed mindset of what I thought living with a disability was going to be because I didn’t know any better. When we learned about the Paralympic movement, it was like this whole world was opened up. For those previous few months I felt like now, as an individual with a physical disability, I was “physically incapable” of doing things. Sure, I can’t put one foot in front of the other, but outside of that, that idea is completely and utterly untrue. When we learned about the Paralympic movement, it solidified the idea that really anything is possible in terms of what I could desire for my future. We ended up going to the pool that night, my sister and I, with a lot of family persuasion. I didn’t really want to go, admittedly. It was snowing in Minnesota. Go figure. I was kind of like, nah, I’m good. We did end up going. When we got to the pool, I wheeled in. There was a railing right when you come in the doors before you go into the seating in the natatorium. I looked over the railing to the pool deck.

I think that was the first moment that I felt hope since my injury, not the fake it until you make it, if you smile enough, you’ll get through this really crappy time in your life and you’ll kind of fool yourself into believing you’re okay, but I actually felt hope. It wasn’t about the idea that I thought I was going to go become a Paralympic champion. That was not on my radar at all at the time. It was more so that I looked to the pool deck and I saw people that I saw myself in. For the previous few months, everywhere I turned I felt like I was on an island alone. I didn’t see a path forward. I didn’t see people I could see myself in when I wheeled out the doors of my home and into our society. I didn’t see others in stores or advertisements or media or entertainment. It was just me. That was really tough. That notion of it’s hard to become what you don’t see became very real in my life. When I looked to that pool deck, I saw possibility. I saw opportunity. I saw a path forward. I ended up back on that pool deck forty-eight hours later with my dad. I got back in the water for the first time just two days later. Swimming and that black line that trails the bottom of the pool, in so many ways, saved me. It’s what allowed me to start piecing my life back together. Then eventually, I got that competitive itch just like I had when I was a seven-year-old kid going to the sport for the first time. I realized that that was where I was my truest self. That’s where I turned to heal.

Zibby: Wow. That’s amazing. You had this quote where you said, “I could not will my legs to move.” I just wrote this on a little sticky because I read this on the computer. ” I could not will my legs to move, but I could wake up each morning and fight knowing that I had parents and sisters who were rooting for me, praying for me, and fighting for me.” You had this whole part of the book about how you have to accept help and how it’s all a team and the amazing support of your family, who, by the way, I want to bow down and be like, you are amazing, I love your family, and how good overcomes and all the ways they’ve obviously made you into this wonderful person, but the goodness that comes out of them. Tell me a little more about how you all had to band together, and especially on the heels of your sister’s illness and trauma that you all had gotten through after she had had a near-death experience and how you could rally and even find the humor in racing on the ground when your sister stole away your wheelchair and all of that.

Mallory: I think that it’s such an important thing to learn. We all hear and understand the sentiment that we are stronger together in numbers. Once it’s actually had to play out in your life and you see it to be true, that’s a whole different thing. Early on, I had, like I said, the love of my parents and my sisters and our community. I knew that those people not only were going to bring color to my life, but give me strength and be that safety net, if you will, to allow me to attempt these things as I start to learn how to put the pieces together, but also have a place fall because that’s inevitable. When we’re learning, we stumble. We fall. We get back up. We stumble. We fall. We get back up. It’s just this back-and-forth game a little bit. Now all these years later, I look and I have my husband added to that mix. I have other incredible individuals who have come into the fold. It’s just one of the many things that I would say I’m very grateful for in this journey, especially that it happened at such a young age for me in perspective to life because I learned at a very young age that we aren’t meant to do this alone. Asking for help does not make us weak. It’s honestly probably the strongest thing that we can do.

Whether that’s in my career as an athlete as I chase down my third Paralympic Games or whether that’s just in my life as an individual, as a daughter, as a sister, as a friend, as a wife, or a businesswoman, asking for help is so vital. Understanding that, yes, I am fiercely independent and I am stubborn as they come — I’ll be the first to admit it. When I was a kid, everything was, I do it. Even as an adult, there’s a lot of, I do it. I got this. I’m good. Understanding that “we do it” is just as important, if not more, I think what gives us the strength to have that fierce independence is knowing that it’s backed by the support of a community. When you put those two things together, honestly, that’s a remarkable combination. Whether it’s triumph, whether it’s adversity and loss and trauma, whatever it is, or just a random Tuesday, community and the people in your life, they’re everything. They’re what makes the gold medal moments worth it. They’re what catch you when the January 21st, 2008s happens. They’re what bring light to the in between. I think that that is something important. I think that we naturally as humans, we struggle with saying, I need help. We somehow think that that means we’re less than or we’re weak or we’re incapable. As I said, I truly do believe it’s probably one of the strongest things we can do.

Zibby: You also said in the book that, and I guess this is an expression that your mom used to say to you, “God never wastes a pain,” which I love. Tell me how you interpret that and how that’s been a guiding light, how you’ve turned your pain into such a gift for other people and into something so inspiring.

Mallory: I think every experience we face in life is for a purpose, even the hard ones. I am a better person because of January 21st, 2008. I am a better person because of March 5th, 2014, which is the day of my arm injury that unfortunately has been a second permanent injury in my life. I am a better person because of those days and the journeys that they’ve carried me through. We all are. If you look at just this past year alone, it has been so incredibly challenging for all of us in very different ways but shared by a common experience. We have all faced loss to some level this year, hardship, even if loss is as simple as, right now in 2021, life is not what you thought it was going to be at this stage in early 2020. You had different plans that haven’t been able to play out because of everything that’s happened. While that’s not physical loss in the sense that we all traditionally talk about loss, that is a loss in a way for us and what we thought our future would carry. It’s okay to say that that’s hard. I think that when we look at those challenging times in our lives, it’s important that we don’t guilt our way through of, we need to find the silver lining and we don’t get to experience the pain that comes with those moments. I also think it’s important to realize that through those seasons, through the adversity that we face in our lifetime, we ultimately grow into better people as a result of them.

We are better people because of this past year. We have experienced things maybe we never thought would we experience. That is making us stronger for what is to come in our future. January 21st, 2008 in my life and in months and years that followed, I am better for that. I am more rooted in what my purpose is and who I want to be and my values and perspective because of that season of my life. I think it’s really important to realize that no matter how dark it might feel, there is always something good that comes on the other side even if that something good is carved by pain. It could be simply appreciating the simple moments more because you’ve, unfortunately, had to learn firsthand how much they are to be cherished and how they’re not irreplaceable and how tomorrow’s not guaranteed. That’s a really hard lesson to have to learn firsthand and a heartbreak that nobody should have to know. To some element, there’s also a beauty in being able to live a life with that perspective of being able to enjoy those moments in a way that you never did before. That’s where I find that strength from, understanding that January 21st, 2008 wasn’t just for nothing. It’s helped give me purpose moving forward. It’s helped give me closure to that day and understand that it is not my defining factor. It’s a part of me, but it does not define me or who I am to become.

Zibby: Is writing the book part of sharing? I feel like your story and what you’ve learned and this realization, this change that took over you and this appreciation of life, it’s like you’ve seen through all the mess and found what is important. You want to shout it from the rooftops, this message that people are often too busy or distracted to even see. You have this crystal-clear vision of it. You want to shout it from the rooftops. Is that how the book came about? How else do you want to spread your message?

Mallory: For me, Limitless, it came about — this might sound a little bit ridiculous. It came about because I know how much pain eighteen-year-old Mal was in, and I know that the pain that I was in, I wasn’t on an island alone when it comes to that. That’s a very universal feeling. We have all, to some extent, faced that in our lives. We all know the depths. We all know trauma and loss and adversity and hardship very intimately. I wanted to share my story in a way that could help empower others to find that light within themselves, to help empower others to understand that their now does not define what’s to become, and empower them to find their limitless potential within. To me, limitless isn’t a fluff statement. It’s a way of being. It’s a way of understanding that the circumstances we carry do not define who we are or what we can become. Only we get to do that. Sure, they factor in. There are inherently things like, I am individual in a wheelchair with no function of my legs. It doesn’t matter how much I channel my inner limitless spirit. I’m not going to walk. That is a very factual thing. I think sometimes we make that idea so literal that we don’t step back and realize, yeah, but limitless or that holistic healing, if you will, is about something so much more than one foot in front of other, in my situation, or whatever that could be for you. It’s about who we choose to be in those moments. For me, Limitless really came to life because I did. I have it spelled out in thirteen years of journals as I worked through this. I was in a lot of pain early on. I knew as I grew that that was not an uncommon territory for people. That’s something, unfortunately, we can all relate on. I wanted to share my story in a way that wasn’t just chronologically telling it, but also sharing what I learned throughout and pulling that out and really empowering others to find that in themselves. That’s my biggest hope for Limitless, is that I can empower other individuals to find their light and honor their journey so they can lean into their limitless potential.

Zibby: For some people, just writing the book would be a huge challenge. For you, it’s like, oh, just throw that on your to-do list for the day. What was it like? You’re a really great writer on top of everything else. Tell me about the process of writing this and everything from the cover design to how long it took. What was the book-writing process like? Did you collaborate with somebody else? What was it like?

Mallory: First of all, I very much anchored myself in team jacket when it comes to how you display your books on a bookshelf after going through the book process. Designing a book cover and realizing how much thought goes into it, it makes sense, but you just don’t always know what you don’t know until you go through it. You don’t always appreciate it. I was like, I will never take a book cover off a book ever again. They will forever stay on. It was so much fun to go through those details. Yes, there’s the writing. Even just understanding and respecting the craft that goes into putting a book out into the world, it is remarkable. Talk about teams and communities, the team that I was so fortunate to have surround me, absolutely remarkably human beings. Limitless is limitless because of those people. I had an amazing cowriter, Tiffany Yecke Brooks. She was my mentor and my teacher and my safe place to fall when we were rehashing some of the most challenging moments in my life. What was so incredible about how we wrote Limitless is — I love to write. I always have. I also knew I didn’t know how to do that when it came to a book. I really needed her guidance through that. Yet she also really empowered me. There were some chapters where she was like, “Take it away, Mal.” It was just me and a blank Word document. There was a lot of that that went on.

I appreciate that because we really created a cowriting environment versus having her just attempt to go after it in my story. I really appreciate that she, as a cowriter, gave me that trust and freedom with my story to do that in a way that allowed my voice to shine through in Limitless. I’m so proud of what we’ve created with that. From the writing process, it was fast. Limitless came together, from what I’ve heard, fast. It’s my first, so I just don’t know what I don’t know. We started writing in January. We were final and turned in in June with the first eleven chapters turned in in May. We got a month for that final chapter because due to COVID, the ending was different. It wasn’t going to end how chapter twelve ends. There’s also a little bit of a beauty in that. As we were writing and everything started to come to light with what we are facing in our world with COVID and I realized we’re going to have to re-figure out how we want to end Limitless, I just sat back with my husband and chuckled. Of course we are because that’s how this story has gone. Being paralyzed at eighteen is not how we planned things to go. You go on down the line, and it’s filled with all of these detours and curveballs of things we didn’t plan. It only seems fitting that the ending of the book is following that same path. We really took space for that. One of the biggest blessings for me was — from January to March, I was writing while training for Tokyo. Trials were supposed to be in June of 2020 when my manuscript was due. I was going to be training for Tokyo, traveling as a speaker, and writing. While I had Tiffany and she was remarkable, I think I finally realized in March when everything started to shut down and I lost access to training, we still have a lot to write come March.

It was a little eye-opening. At the same time, it gave me the space to step back from training and just sit surrounded by thirteen years of journals and really lean into those. I allowed them to guide me in how I wrote Limitless. The chapters are all pulled together from lessons that I learned during that point of my journey. They’re all pulled out of the journals in themes that I had just kept talking about during that time. That’s how the chapter titles came about and how the conversations within the chapters — it’s interesting. While we started writing in January of 2020, in a lot of ways, I started writing three days after my paralysis when I picked up my journal in the hospital. I’m so grateful for that because it allowed me to lean into, what was I really going through in that time? versus trying to come up with it thirteen years later, hindsight twenty/twenty. I certainly hope that that vulnerability will be what can help readers connect with it in a raw sense. I loved the writing process. I would do over and over and over again. I think that it taught me a lot. It forced me to do ultimately what it is that I hope for Limitless to do. It forced me to step back and read journals that I haven’t touched since I turned the page and wrote the next one and really forced me to honor my own journey as well.

Zibby: It’s funny you said hindsight is twenty/twenty, that whole philosophy, but yet maybe there’s something to it that last year when COVID hit it was 2020. Maybe it’s just one of those signs. This is all a joke. Any plans you think you’re making, forget it. Everything is up in the air. You think you see clearly? You don’t.

Mallory: Everything can change. Goodness, when the games were postponed, I would say the hardest part of that for me was, we were planning on starting a family this year. As athletes in general in the Olympic and Paralympic movement, your world is planned on these four-year quads. Then as a female athlete as you get older, you can imagine family planning goes into that. My husband and I planned our wedding around Rio. We were planning a family around Tokyo. Then everything changed. It was like, I guess we’re waiting again. One year, it’s like, oh, it’s not that big of a deal. We will be on our own journey to have kids. It’s not as simple as some couples may like. I know that’s a pretty common thing of embarking on fertility journeys, but we’ll be doing that. When windows get shorter, you always get a little nervous. I don’t plan on retiring after Tokyo, so now I have three years until Paris versus four years. Everything condenses. You feel the emotions. 2020 did that to a lot of people. There’s a lot of people that were trying for families who were going through infertility treatments and had to stop treatments because clinics shut down. Their long-awaited dream to have kids got put on hold again when it’s already been put on hold how many different times? Weddings were canceled or postponed, graduations missed, loved ones lost without the closure for their family members to be there with them. The list goes on.

I think that there’s a space when we look to 2020 and we now look at where we’re at in 2021 to just pause and take it in and let ourselves feel what we need to feel and appreciate what we’ve learned even if that learning has come through loss and look towards where it is that we’re going versus just rushing to say, I need it to get back to what it was. I hate, for anyone listening, to be the bearer of bad news. It’s not going to go back to what it was. It shouldn’t go back to what it was. When I was paralyzed, I wanted January 20th, 2008 all over again. I just wanted life before January 21st. The truth of it is, A, that’s just not feasible because we can’t change the events of our past. B, that’s not the direction we’re supposed to move. No matter how uncomfortable and how challenging a time is, we are supposed to learn from that and move into who it’s building us to become. This is maybe the optimist in me. Maybe it’s the growth mindset in me. I refuse to believe that 2020 was for a waste. My heart breaks for everybody who faced the ultimate loss in 2020 and 2021. Nobody should have to go through that. It is also my hope that maybe this year can make us a more compassionate society and force us all to slow down just a brief second to appreciate what it is that we’re in and where it is we could go as result of this versus just rushing to look at past experiences and circumstances as our metric for what should become.

Zibby: I totally went over our time because I am captivated listening to you speak, seriously. Amazing. I always ask this question at the end. I have to hear what you have to say about it. Then I apologize again for going over.

Mallory: You’re fine.

Zibby: What advice would you have to aspiring authors? I feel like this whole thing has been advice for living and accomplishing your dreams in so many ways, but just anything on that.

Mallory: The biggest thing I would say is every single one of us has a story to share. If it is your dream to share your story in between two covers in a book, do it. Even if you literally do it for yourself or for your family, even if it’s a story that nobody else ever sees, if that is a dream, go for it. I do believe we all have a story to tell. We all have a story to share. They all deserve to be heard. That would be my biggest piece of advice. It can be daunting. It can be terrifying. We’re all a little self-depreciative. Why does anyone want to hear my story? Whether it’s a nonfiction or fictional story, we all kind of go down that rabbit hole because for whatever reason, we see ourselves as so much smaller than we actually are. I would say, as cheesy as it sounds, get in front of that mirror, give yourself that power pose, and literally go do it. Why not? Literally, why not? Again, even if it’s a story no one else but you and your dearest loved ones and friends see and read, who cares? You’re doing it for yourself. I would say when you get into the process, the biggest advice I would give is once you start writing, anchor yourself in why. Why did you pick up that pen or get on your keyboard in the first place? Carry that with you through every single page because it will guide you in every decision you need to make along the way. There’s a million and one decisions and forks from the creative process that you’re going to come to. Should I do it this way or this way? If you know why you’re writing it, that will guide you.

Zibby: Wow. This has been amazing. I am such a fan of yours. I will be following whatever you do going forward. Congratulations on this book. Thank you for bringing your beautiful perspective into the world. I have so much respect for you. I’m so glad we got to chat. Thank you.

Mallory: Thank you so much. I really appreciate that. This was fun. This was really fun. I see your dog in the background.

Zibby: I know. I saw you had a lab on Instagram. I saw yours.

Mallory: He’s a . Where’s Sammie at?

Zibby: Aw, so cute.

Mallory: He takes over this other chair in my office for everything.

Zibby: She’s my little work friend. She hangs out with me all day.

Mallory: I love it. I should’ve actually said I had a second cowriter in this guy because he was at my hip literally — at night, he’ll put himself to bed, but when I was writing, he would stay on the floor at my side in the office until whatever hour of the night I was up until. It was so funny. Both my husband and I were like, does he maybe really understand to some element what you’re doing? Generally, he’d be like, I’m out, I’m going to bed. He was at my side the entire time.

Zibby: Dogs know.

Mallory: It was lovely to meet you. Thank you so much. I hope you and your family stay well as spring makes its way around to all of us.

Zibby: Thank you. You too. If you ever end up in New York, please let me know. I’ll have an event for you or do whatever or something.

Mallory: We will most definitely end up in New York. My husband grew up out East and lived in the city for eight years.

Zibby: There we go.

Mallory: We are normally there a lot. Obviously, normally is kind of a loaded statement right now.

Zibby: Thanks so much, Mallory. Take care. Buh-bye.

Mallory: Thank you.

Mallory Weggemann, LIMITLESS

LIMITLESS by Mallory Weggemann

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