The Relax is Yahoo Life’s wellness series where experts, influencers and celebrities share their approach to wellness and mental healthfrom self-care rituals to setting healthy boundaries to the mantras that keep them afloat.
Mallory Weggemann is so much more than a spinal cord injury woman in a wheelchair, let alone a record-setting, gold medal-decorated woman in a wheelchair. But optics is a funny thing, and nobody knows that more than the Paralympic swimming champion who has broken dozens of records. Back in 2008, when Weggemann became paralyzed at the age of 18, she looked at the world around her and felt isolated by her differences. Without representation, she learned how hard it is to become what you don’t see, and over the past 14 years she has done her part to fill that void — so the next generation can see people who are like them.
Last year Weggemann was present and reported on the Golden Globes, where she didn’t see a single person with a visible disability all day. In addition, no one had thought of building an accessible path and she had to be lifted up three steps at the end of the carpet. In her new book boundless, Weggemann shares her story and lessons like these learned by overcoming obstacles and expectations that stood in her way.
Shortly before going to Tokyo to compete in the Paralympic Games — where she won two gold medals and set two new records — Weggemann spoke to Yahoo Life about staying focused and motivated.
What is your approach to mental health?
As an athlete I cannot achieve what I want to achieve if I am not mentally strong. Mental strength, in my opinion, is not about fighting it out. It’s about emotional intelligence, discovering your limits and doing what’s best for you. As a society, we put all our value into one result and that can be really damaging.
How do you feel while going to Tokyo?
To me I feel like the strongest I’ve ever been and that’s partly because of understanding what you need [emotionally and mentally] and honor that. I know that when I get to those starting blocks, I’ve done everything I can physically do at that point. The work is posted; it comes down to where I am emotionally and mentally. We often don’t talk about [the mental] aspect and we’ve seen athletes spark that conversation and bring it to the fore.
You have to value your athletic peers to voice their opinion.
If we don’t step back and realize how much mental strength it takes to do the physical exertion, we lower the work the athlete does to get there.
If you look at 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 resources to do that. It’s so much more than “just running fast”…
How do you reset when you’re not feeling well 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 turned upside down [from my spinal cord injury]; I had built an identity as an athlete and competitor, but I could barely perform day-to-day 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?
Self-care to me is more than bubble baths and a glass of wine. Whether it’s meditation, visualization, or journaling (I’ve been doing 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 allows you to focus on what’s around you and gives you a sense of control when you’re out of control. Practicing gratitude and breathing, lighting a nice scented candle, taking a moment to feel what I need to feel. And my dog… Let’s face it. My dog and my husband [laughs].
What gives you stress?
I’m lucky 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 that much, but I do have the stress of the way society sees people with disabilities and the avalanche of opinions that come from ignorance and unconscious bias and even hatred. but at this stage of the journey I have to take care of myself.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
I am extremely lucky to have an incredible support system around me and I extract nuggets of wisdom from it. My father 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 emerging as your best self. My mom always told me “good wins” – that’s an anchor for me. There is a greater purpose for this moment you are in.
Do you have a saying or mantra?
My husband and I sometimes sing “Limitless” (the name of my book). Life can be tough, but we are more than our circumstances. “Unlimited!” We are worthy. We have this!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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