Written by By Garrett Skinner, CNN
Swimming, in Mallory Weggemann’s eyes, is about to become an Olympic sport.
The 23-year-old American record holder and five-time Paralympic gold medalist this week became the fourth athlete — and the youngest — to sign a contract to use open water as an Olympic qualification event.
And that, says Weggemann, is because swimming is the perfect form of training for kayaking.
“With paddling, I’m able to transition easily between center and my landing spot,” she tells CNN Sport. “The discipline that you need is mental. I can put myself in situations where I need to lower my center of gravity and push my body backwards, and I know I will swim well. It’s calming.”
‘Paddling saved my life’
Swimming, Weggemann’s first love, led her to Athens in 2004 to compete in an Olympics for the first time.
This year, to celebrate her third consecutive Paralympic gold medal, she chose to do so from an island off the coast of Bali.
“It’s on the site of the last resting place of Elizabeth Smart, where there are symbols, flowers and memories of people who were kidnapped,” she says.
“She was kidnapped at age 14 from her home. She was released 24 days later. It’s the last place my grandparents, Steve and Louise, were murdered. So that site, which is just a little bit removed from where my parents were married, was a nice segue for me to the 2016 Rio Games.”
Before the Paralympics took place, Weggemann was completing a degree in geography at Portland State University, while training for the Olympics.
“I wanted to focus on fulfilling my goal of winning a third Paralympic gold, whereas most of my university classes revolved around the science of water; well-defined current flows and flows in other rivers and how the oceans work,” she says.
“So then with over a year to go, I felt like I had a good head space and I knew I was in the best shape that I had ever been in to train.
“Instead of competing for the fall semester and then dropping down to do the 2015 spring semester, I decided to drop two semesters so I could get an open water qualifying trial on a lake or river in Bali.”
Weggemann’s final battle was against Kurt Danzing , the American Para-Kayak hero who will make his Olympic debut at Tokyo 2020.
“There’s only a couple of boats on the water with me and Kurt,” she recalls. “I was on a lot of rest and just watching him paddle by me. He’s pretty awesome.
“I’ve seen him paddle with a satu knife and his team are on some sort of guided kayak so he is in a very specific place when he’s paddling by, so I was the one floating by, watching him. It is so different from my canoe training. It’s so peaceful. He paddles very strongly and I can’t even imagine how much power he has, just from paddling by me.
“Some of my friends who kayak are devastated that I’m not in a canoe with him. He is awesome, the only thing he doesn’t have is an Olympic, so that’s the next thing he’s chasing.”
‘He is part of me’
When Weggemann competes in Rio next month, she’ll come out on top in the Paralympic gold medal classification for non-smoker canoes.
“I want the experience to come from different ways,” she says. “I want to be a part of a group of people I train with, I want to go as the team and represent the team well.”
But the opportunity for her to compete as an Olympic diver in a place that’s familiar to her — and where she feels safe — is hugely tempting.
“It’s obviously hard to pick between both. I’m an athlete, I train as athletes do and I want to continue that,” she says.
“But if I can meet this Olympic qualifying target, I don’t have to do any sports. I don’t have to do sports because there’s no expectation. No one is expecting anything, they’ve let me do the sport that I love, and it’s going to happen naturally. So that’s the most exciting part.”
If she gets an opportunity to represent the US in the 2016 Paralympics, then we’ll know that Mallory Weggemann will take it.