Why Paralympian Mallory Weggemann needs to be your athlete role model

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We're live with Paralympic swimmer Mallory Weggemann who will represent the U.S. in Rio! Send Mallory support during the games by using #HellofromHome.

Posted by AOL Sports on Tuesday, July 12, 2016

There is no refuting that Mallory Weggemann is a fantastic athlete. Having already won 22 international gold medals between 2009 and 2011, she is a force to be reckoned with in the world of swimming.

Weggemann swam competitively in high school, but was paralyzed after an epidural injection in 2008, right before her 19th birthday.

Just two months later, Weggemann was back in the pool and ready to swim. Now, she hold 15 world records, and won a gold medal for freestyle swimming at the 2012 Paralympics in London. It's not hard to imagine why Weggemann is totally our role model. Read our full interview with her below!

#YouShouldKnow is a feature that showcases rising talents. To see more past interviews, including more Olympic exclusives, click here.

Your story is just incredible, after becoming paralyzed at the age of 19 after an epidural injection, you were left paralyzed, and your life changed forever. Can you sum up your emotions around that experience?

2008 was a tough time for me. I had just graduated from high school in June 2007. I was 18 years old, It was January 21st when I was paralyzed, it happened almost two months exactly before my 19th birthday. It was a difficult time in my life. I think when we all think about when we're 18 years old -- we're figuring out who we are, what we're doing, where we're going, and while I was doing that I just become paralyzed. Then, I had all of these other emotions I had to sort through. The hardest part was the uncertainties and the unknowns of what my future would be. With time and support from my loved ones I made it through, but it was a hard time following my paralysis in 2008.

Did swimming help you make peace with that?

Completely, swimming changed a lot for me. I grew up a lifelong swimmer, so I started competing when I was 7 years old. I'm the baby of three girls and my two older sisters competed as well growing up, so I swam my whole life. After my injury, I assumed swimming was just one of the many things I wouldn't be able to do again following my paralysis. Then, I was introduced to the Paralympic movement, serendipitously through a newspaper article during the 2008 Beijing trials. I got back into the water a few days later, which ended up being about two and a half months after my paralysis, and it changed everything.

It finally started to bring me back to life. I was in a very dark place after my injury, and getting back in the water gave me that freedom of life outside of my wheelchair, because when I was in the water I was free from my wheelchair, and I was able to just be myself and move about without the restraints of four wheels and go back to doing something I loved so much before my injury and realized that I still in it after my injury. I think that served as a catalyst for me to understand that if I can do that with swimming, and I can enjoy swimming post-injury, then who's to say I can't enjoy all of these other things post-injury? It was a very freeing transition back to the sport for me and definitely helped to bring me back to life and look at my future with a little bit more excitement.

You experienced some pretty quick success, did that surprise you?

It did. I wasn't a horrible swimmer before, but I wasn't on track for a D1 scholarship. Let's put it that way. I swam varsity all four years of high school, I swam clubbing year round, I was captain senior year, but I wasn't the next Missy Franklin. I was just a so-so high school swimmer. But after paralysis a lot of that changed because I was having a hard time understanding what being physically disabled meant in our society. I think a lot of people look at it as meaning you're physically incapable of doing something. That made me very uncomfortable. I was like 'how can one moment change me from someone who has the world at her fingertips to somebody who just can't do all of these things?' I used swimming as my way of fighting back, and it was my way of showing myself I could do more. It was my way of proving to others that I could be more, and by swimming, to get faster, I had to be physically capable. So, that kind of fought that stereotype of being physically incapable.

I think that was the mentality behind it at first -- it was this game about how fast I could get. When I broke my first American record, I thought, well, if I can break an American record then I must not be all that disabled. Then I broke a world record, and thought well I certainly must not be disabled now, but I want to break more. It became this game of chasing and chasing. Maybe that was me running away a bit from what had happened in my life, but I think ultimately I think it was just me trying to figure out where I could go. It was shocking when I started swimming fast enough -- I made the US Women's National Team in March 2009, and it was pretty incredible.

What are you most looking forward to about going back to the Paralympics?

So, this will be my second Paralympic games and I am so excited. It's in Rio, and Rio was where I won my very first ever International medal, and it happened to be a gold medal, the 400 meter freestyle back at World's in 2009, so I feel like it's all starting to come full circle. There's the excitement of going back to Rio and hopefully winning medals in Rio again. There's also a calmness in knowing that these are my second games. I've done it before, I've been through the process, there's not nearly as many nerves, and don't necessarily have anything I have to prove right now. I've been to the games before, I've won a gold medal. Obviously, do I want to do more? Yes. But I don't feel like I have to prove myself as I have in the past, so I can go in without all of the pressure, and just enjoy being at my second Paralympic games. The fun part of that is that usually when you do that as an athlete, that's when you perform the best. So, I'm kind of excited that I'm in this place of not contentedness, but calmness about what Rio will be, because that's when I perform the best.

So, when you go through your first Olympic match what are the emotions you feel?

Going through your very first competition at the games, and experiencing -- as a swimmer, it's preliminaries -- day 1, of whatever your first race is. There are nerves, in London there were a little over 18,000 spectators, and you're sitting in this natatorium and there's eight lanes, seven other athletes and the referees, and you look up and it's just over 18,000 people. Rio will be very similar, but will be a little different in the setup, for the fact that most traditional pools have the stands and the spectators on the two sides of the pool. The Rio pool actually has spectators all the way around, which I think is going to make it feel that much more encompassing, and will bring the environment to a whole new level. I'm actually very excited about that. So, there's the nerves but then there's the excitement and the energy of putting on your team USA uniform -- for us it's a swim cap -- with the American flag and your name on it. In that moment, you know your athletic career is so much more than just another pool, another black line, another race. You're doing it on the world stage, and you're doing it for, what I say, is the best team in the world and that's Team USA. There's no better team than that. There's not really words to describe it. There's a lot of nerves, but there's also a lot of heightened emotion and it's a very emotional experience.

What kind of life lessons have you walked away with from your experiences?

For me, over the past 8 years, we're all stronger than we give ourselves credit for. I say that because I have a lot of people that say: 'Oh if it were me, or if were paralyzed, or if this happened to me I don't think I'd be able to do it." I challenge people to not think that way, because if you had asked me nine years ago what my life would look like if this happened I would laugh at you. I say that because I think we all have a strength in us to have the adversities and obstacles that come in life, we just don't know we have it until we have to tap into it. We're stronger than we realize and ultimately for me, I truly believe that there it's not those circumstances and moments that define us, it's how we react to them, and I think we all have the tools to react to them with grace, and courage, and bravery, we just don't know we have them until we're forced to use them.

So, you've been involved with motivational speaking. What's been your favorite part about that?

Motivational speaking is a true gift for me, and I say that because when I get the opportunity to speak to audiences I also get the opportunity to meet a ton of incredible individuals. One of my favorite favorite parts of speaking is staying around after the speech, and being able to actually interact with the individuals. For me, I've realized over the years that everyone has a story. I'm in a situation where I have the opportunity to share my story, very publicly, and that's exciting, but the reward in it for me is being able to hear everybody else's stories. I think it's so fascinating how individuals get to where they are, and the different walks of life and what brought everybody to what they're doing in that moment in time. I think that's really interesting, and that's motivating for me, and it's uplifting. It kind of gives me that extra little push I need, because we all have bad days, let's face it. So, its very uplifting to me to be able to be able to do that as part of my profession.

Have you ever thought about writing a book?

I have yes! I love writing. That's actually what got me into speaking. I journaled my entire process after paralysis, and a family member, my dad threw me into speaking, and I had no idea what to say, so I just started reading out of old journals and that kind of brought it all out. Speaking really stemmed from my love of writing, so ultimately that is my hope. I have a co-author I've been working with, we've been working through the process so we're just waiting for the right time to push it out there.

You're featured in a new documentary, The Current, how did it come about and where can we watch it?

The Current was filmed in 2013 after the London 2012 games. There's a number of individuals involved. I was down in Bimini with Missy Franklin and her family and a gentleman named Anthony Robelace. We were down there and it was all about showcasing the healing powers of the water, and the ocean more specifically, and Jean-Michel Cousteau was a big part of it. It was a really neat experience, because as a swimmer that's a very natural fit for me. At a very young age I was scuba certified and enjoyed that whole process, and during the filming for "The Current" I got to go scuba diving for the first time since my injury, and that was really uplifting. For a while, I know they were streaming it on Epix, I think it's on Netflix now, and it's kind of a little bit of everywhere -- I think it was even on ESPN at one point. It's kind of scattered all throughout, so you can dig for it and you'll find it somewhere. It was a great opportunity, it was a really fun process.

What does it mean for you to be a part of the Hersey's team?

I'm gong to do a Hersey pun -- it's so sweet! I have learned through the Hersey team that everything is sweeter in Hersey, Pennsylvania. That is the true statement apparently. But, it's been incredible! What's so neat for me is that Hersey is all about creating memories with family and loved ones. When you look back to when you were kids, I mean I'm 27 and I still make s'mores, and you think about family trips or sitting outside and having a summer bonfire with your family & loved ones, or having s'mores. I feel like there are so many ways that Hersey as a company has been a part of our memories that we don't even realize it until we go back and pointedly go back and think about it. For me, those memories were camping with my family and making s'mores with my dad around the campfire with my dad after a long day of hiking or backpacking. I love those memories and I cherish those memories.

As an athlete, bring able to bring that part of my life into my athletic career is a really neat opportunity. When you get to this point, and you're going to the games, you can't do it alone. You can't get to that point just as an individual, it takes a community and it takes a village. For me, I learned that lesson in London when I won my gold medal. I had that realization of knowing that I only had that medal because of the people that surrounded me. You're only good at the people you surround yourself with. That's what I love about this campaign and their 'Hello From Home" It's all about the community behind the athlete and sending those well wishes to the athlete. You know, we may be great athletes but we're human. We have bad days, we have self-doubt, we have all of these emotions and those messages of support and love -- that's what brings us forward and that's what allows us to get to that gold medal moment, and that's what makes the gold medal moment that much sweeter. I have been very lucky to have been able to be a part of the team and it's very neat to pull together that emotional and community and family component of my career along with my athletic career into one. That's been an incredible opportunity.

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