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The Unwind is Yahoo Life’s well-being series in which experts, influencers and celebrities share their approaches to wellness and mental health, from self-care rituals to setting healthy boundaries to the mantras that keep them afloat.
Mallory Weggemann is so much more than a woman with a spinal cord injury in a wheelchair, let alone a world-class, record-setting, gold medal-decorated woman in a wheelchair. But optics are a funny thing, and no one knows that more than the Paralympic swim champion who has broken dozens of records. Back in 2008, when Weggemann was paralyzed at the age of 18, she looked at the world around her and felt isolated by her differences. With no representation, she learned how hard it is to become what you don’t see, and spent the past 14 years doing her part to fill that void — so that the next generation can see people who look like them.
Last year, Weggemann attended and reported at the Golden Globes, where she didn’t see a single person all day who had a visible disability. What’s more, no one had thought to create an accessible path, and she had to be lifted up three steps at the end of the carpet. In her new book, Limitless, Weggemann shares her story and lessons like these learned by pushing past obstacles and expectations that stood in her way.
On Monday, Weggemann won gold in the 100-meter backstroke S7 and broke the Paralympic record in a stunning come from behind race. She also won gold and set a record in the women’s 200-meter individual medley SM7 and has another chance at the podium in the women's 50-meter butterfly S7. It's her last race of the games and she set the world record in the event in London in 2012.
The 32-year-old spoke to Yahoo Life about how she stays focused and motivated.
What’s your approach to mental health?
As an athlete, I cannot achieve what I want to achieve if I'm not mentally strong. Mental strength, in my opinion, isn't about toughing it out. It’s about emotional intelligence, finding out what your boundaries are and doing what’s best for you. As a society, we put all of our worth in a single outcome and that could be really damaging.
As you head to Tokyo, how are you feeling?
For me, I feel the strongest I’ve ever been and that’s partly due to understanding what you need [emotionally and mentally] and honoring that. I know when I get to those starting blocks, at that point, I’ve done everything I can physically do. The work has been put in; it comes down to where I am at emotionally and mentally. We often don't talk about [the mental] aspect and we’ve seen athletes spark that conversation and put it into the forefront.
You must appreciate your athletic peers for speaking up.
If we don't step back and realize the mental fortitude it takes to do the physical endeavor, we’re cheapening the work the athlete put in to be there.
If you watch Allyson Felix on the track and become the most decorated track and field athlete — she is a remarkably talented runner, but it didn't just take physical strength. It took mental strength, fortitude and wherewithal to do that. It’s so much more than “just running fast"...
I respect what my peers are doing; it’s important what Simone [Biles] did: to make that call and make that decision was the strongest thing she could have done. To be the best at what you do takes physical and mental fortitude — and we have to honor both.
How do you reset when you’re not feeling great mentally?
Since I was a kid, the water has been my place [of solace]; it’s literally my version of therapy. I went for a time in my life, a solid 18 months, where I couldn't touch the water and my life was upside down [from my spinal cord injury]; I had built an identity as an athlete and competitor but I could hardly do everyday tasks. So, in that time, I learned the power of visualization. Maybe I couldn't swim but from the hospital bed, I could close my eyes and visualize that water.
Do you have any self-care rituals?
For me, self-care is more than bubble baths and a glass of wine. Whether it’s meditation, visualization or journaling (I've turned to it for years), I took a lot of time to practice gratitude and write down small, specific things that [I’m] grateful for. It can be very grounding and makes you focus on what's around you and gives you a sense of control when you don't have control. Gratitude practice and breathing, lighting a nice scented candle, taking a moment to feel what I need to feel. And my dog… Let's be honest. My dog and my husband [laughs].
What stresses you out?
I’m fortunate to have an accessible home and prior to COVID, with travel, it was stressful. I don't have the stress of accessibility because I'm not out and about as much, but I do have the stress of the way society perceives individuals with disabilities and the onslaught of opinions that come from ignorance and unconscious bias and even hatred. I want to make everyone happy but at this stage of the journey, I need to take care of myself.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
I’m extremely fortunate to have an incredible support system around me and I pull nuggets of wisdom from them. My dad always told me and my sisters that we could make a difference and change the world; he understood that sometimes making a difference or changing the world is showing up as your best self. My mom always told me “good overcomes” — that’s an anchor for me. There’s a greater purpose for this moment you’re in.
Do you have a saying or mantra?
My husband and I chant “limitless” (the name of my book) sometimes. Life can be tough but we are more than our circumstances. “Limitless!” We are worthy. We got this!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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