“Swimming saved my life,” Mallory Weggemann, a five-time Paralympic medalist and a veteran of four invitational championship swim meets, has told Guardian Australia in an exclusive interview.
“I would like to think that swimming saved my life. The key thing is, if you want to live you need to stay active and I think I was a good advertisement for that,” said Weggemann, who is currently in Australia training for the four-day group trials at Glasgow in December.
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Weggemann was 14 and recovering from a heart attack when she stumbled into a pool while holidaying in Queensland in 2009. She went into cardiac arrest and, although they thought she was dead, she was rushed back to the Australian College of Sports Medicine’s nerve-damage unit in Adelaide.
The recuperation process was difficult and Weggemann grew depressed, but the attention and generosity of strangers and organisations combined with swimming made her stronger.
Now 23, Weggemann has other medical issues to combat, however, including recurrent infections from endocarditis and having to have multiple surgeries for sepsis.
She is looking to improve on her three Paralympic medals with another, including a gold in the 50m freestyle, at the forthcoming Paralympic Games in Tokyo and has ambitions to reach the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
“Swimming has been a lifetime pursuit and I love it so much,” she said. “There’s so much competition there, it’s a bit like the Olympics, and I think anyone that loves sport, and really enjoys training and competing and competing for a reason – if you can do both, you’re a lot stronger. And I believe swimming helps make you stronger.
“The majority of my training revolves around the power and strength that swimming brings, that strength, that stamina, just to be able to move and keep up with people that are six and seven times my size. So I just love being out there with the people and getting to know them and going through everything together and working towards a common goal.”
Weggemann will be competing in a month-long qualification program before the December trials in Brisbane. She had previously qualified for the US Paralympic trials in January, but after getting two shocks, she withdrew from the event.
Weggemann is scheduled to return to Australia next week for a trip with fellow Paralympian and shark-attack survivor Ian Thorpe, who will be holding special training sessions and activities for young people affected by injury.
“They [Thorpe and Weggemann] have great love for swimming and the passion and the drive for swimming they both have is great for everybody and for me too,” she said.
“It’s a big year for swimming and it’s going to be so hard to be away for so long from your family and friends, and it’s so hard because you want to compete at the Olympics and you really want to compete at the Paralympics.
“But it’s an Olympic qualifier next month for the Australians so I’m focusing on the Olympics at the moment, and hopefully I’ll be back in Australia this time next year and back competing for our country at the Paralympics in August.”
Weggemann is trying to set herself up for a “dream” showdown at the Pan-Pacific Games in Japan in 2020. “The chance to swim with Ian Thorpe would be amazing,” she said. “That would definitely be a dream.”
Weggemann is studying sports physiology at the University of South Australia in Adelaide and will be competing this year in the 100m and 200m freestyle, the 100m butterfly and the 100m backstroke.