Mallory Weggemann, now 31, was just a teen when she was paralyzed after a medical procedure.

By Johnny Dodd
March 02, 2021
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On a gray, cloudy Minnesota afternoon in January 2008, former high school swimmer Mallory Weggemann lay on her stomach on a gurney in her doctor's office, preparing to get an epidural steroid injection to treat the searing back pain she'd been experiencing ever since recovering from shingles.

As the doctor slid the needle into her back, the teenager's world — which had always revolved around swimming — was suddenly turned upside down.

"I remember hearing the heart rate monitors starting to beep louder and louder," recalls Weggemann — whose legs were bent upward behind her at her knees — in this week's issue of PEOPLE.

She continues, "Then I felt this spark of pain and heard a thud as my legs dropped onto the table."

In that split-second, she lost the ability to move her legs or feel anything below her waist.

Doctors couldn't pinpoint exactly what had caused Weggemann's paralysis, and she spent the next six weeks in a Twin Cities hospital with physical therapists, learning how to navigate her new world in a wheelchair. All the while, Weggemann was desperate to understand what her life would be like as a paraplegic.

"I spent every day online trying to figure out what it all meant," she says, adding, "I couldn't look and see people that looked like me, showing me what a path forward could look like."

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Weggemann eventually found that path forward back in the swimming pool.

She's not only become a Paralympic swim champion (breaking 34 American records and 15 world records), but has also emerged as a sought-after public speaker, author of the new memoir Limitless: The Power of Hope and Resilience to Overcome Circumstance (out on March 2) and a tireless advocate for the disabled.

"It's not the moments that define us," she often tells her audiences, "but how we respond to them."

That message has become even more important to Weggeman after she fractured her left arm in an accident in 2014 that left her with permanent nerve and muscle damage.

"I don't think there's another competitor in the world that has her grit and work ethic and has to endure the pain levels that she does," says her former high school swim coach Steve Van Dyne, who is helping prepare her for the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Paralympics.

"During practice, she'll block out the pain in her arm," recalls coach Van Dyne, "but about a half hour after it's over she usually throws up in the locker room because it's so intense."

Turning setbacks into strength is a skill Weggemann perfected years ago.

"I'm determined to use my energy to be a beacon for others," says the 31-year-old champion swimmer, "because I still remember how scared and alone I felt when I was 18."

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

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This story originally appeared on people.com