Paralympic swimming gold medalist Mallory Weggemann is speaking Thursday at a closing reception for the “Underwater” exhibit at St. Paul’s Interact Center for the Visual and Performing Arts.
Taking a break from training for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games, the Twin Cities resident will talk about how suffering permanent paralysis from an epidural injection when she was 18 changed the direction of her career and life. A competitive swimmer since she was 7, Weggemann said, “I obviously have a close connection to the water, through my career, and so we’re tying in the power that water has in our lives.”
Laura Wertheim Joseph, the director of the gallery, said, “We work with artists with disabilities being [featured] in this exhibition. Our primary goal is to support the work of our artists who are challenging perceptions of disability, and that is what Mallory is doing as well. I talked with Mallory about the ways in which artists and athletes with disabilities have to use a lot of creative problem solving. And so there is a natural connection.”
Weggemann will make her appearance from 6 to 8 p.m. at the center, 1860 W. Minnehaha Av., St Paul. (interactcenter.org)
Q: Have you had an epidural injection since the one that went wrong?
A: For me I was getting them for back pain, and unfortunately in 2008, I was paralyzed. I have not gotten one since. I have no plans [to get another] one. Instead of looking back, [I prefer] finding a way to move on, and, I think, I’ve been introduced to a world that at that time in my life I knew nothing about. I didn’t know about paralympic sports, the adaptive community. Here I am, 11 years later, I am a two-time paralympian training for [a] third Paralympic Games.
I am constantly learning more about the incredible capabilities of the human body. It’s such an eye-opening world. I think that passion I have had for the life I have learned to live following my paralysis at 18 has become a big part of who I am. But it’s also become a big part [of] my interest in seeing how other incredible individuals have adapted.
A: The adaptive community. That’s a new phrase to me.
Q: I am an individual in the adaptive community because of my disability. I had to learn to adapt to life. We have the adaptive sports community. I prefer to term adaptive vs. disabled. There’s not a right or wrong.
Q: You’ve been a competitive swimmer since the age of 7. Were you the fastest little kid in the water?
A: No, I definitely wasn’t, but I have always loved the sport of swimming. I have always loved the community and teammates and coaches. I’m the baby of the three girls [in the family], and so I got into the sports because my sisters swam competitively. For me it was just fueled by that passion. … I was competitive, I always have been, [but] I wouldn’t say I was the fastest in the pool.
I loved it enough when I was paralyzed at 18, I found my way back to the water and got back in 2½ months after my injury. Found my way to the 2012 Paralympic Games and ended up winning gold. So at some point along the way, I became the fastest person [laughs] in the water, but I didn’t start that way.
Q: What characteristics have contributed most to your success?
A: The thing that has really added to my success over the years [was] finding a way to move forward with life; that level of perseverance. Realizing that circumstances are just moments in our lives that define us [based on] how we choose to react to them.
I have a deep-rooted passion for what I do. I love the sport of swimming. I loved it when I was a young girl, and I love it 23 years later. I love all the aspects of my career that I do outside the pool. It’s that passion that’s given me the purpose to know why I am doing what I am doing.
Q: Does Andra Day know she is No. 1 on your motivational music list?
A: [Laughter] I do not think she does, but I love her song “Rise Up” and think it’s such a powerful message. She is an incredible woman. I got to hear her play it live at the Democratic National Convention in 2016. Hearing it in person made it much more incredible.
Q: Have you got a CD dedicated to playing “Rise Up” on a loop?
A: No, I don’t. It’s on a handful of different playlists of mine.
Q: You like songs with the word “rise” in them. Your playlist includes “Rise” by Katy Perry and “Watch Me Rise” by Mikky Ekko.
A: I like the inner message in those songs because I think we all face adversity in our lives. I have learned through my athletic career that it’s hard to get to the top, and once you get to the top it’s harder to stay there and we’re going to get knocked down from time to time.
Q: A: If you were a fish, what kind would you be?
A: [Laughter] I have no idea. I would actually want to be a dolphin. They are incredible.
Q: Do you believe in that high-tech swimwear?
A: I do. That’s what I race in every time. I work with an incredible company, Finis. There is definitely a strong component, I would say yes [it makes me faster]. The job of a tech suit is to enhance the work you’ve already put in — to help give compression and streamline the body and give you aerodynamics that you need for a race. You won’t [watch] an Olympic or Paralympic game and not see athletes in tech suits.
C.J. can be reached at email@example.com and seen on Fox 9’s “Buzz.” E-mailers, please state a subject; “Hello” does not count.