At the 2022 U.S. Paralympics Swimming National Championships late last year, five-time Paralympic medalist Mallory Weggemann took on a new challenge: competing at 26 weeks pregnant. For the latest edition of Chasing Gold (Sunday, January 29th at 2pm ET on NBC), Weggemann shared her experience balancing competition with her plans for parenthood, both as an elite athlete and a woman with a disability. For On Her Turf, she shares more on that journey in her own words.
When news broke that the 2020 Paralympic & Olympic Games would be postponed a year to 2021, I felt the weight of what that meant for my personal life – a delayed Games meant the dream my husband and I held so close in our hearts of becoming parents would also be postponed. For the first time in my career, I found myself asking: To what end? How much more was I willing to sacrifice for my athletic career?
I have loved the sport of swimming since I first got behind the starting blocks when I was seven years old. It is the place that welcomed me home after my paralysis at the age of 18 and in 2009, when I was 20 years old, I was proudly named to my first national team. I never anticipated the places that sport would carry me, let alone to the top of the Paralympic podium. But on that day in March of 2020, I felt torn. I knew a year wasn’t just simply another 365 days. For my husband and I, it could determine whether we’d be able to have children of our own.
In 2017, the year after our wedding, we found out that we are among the 1 in 8 couples in the United States that are impacted by infertility. Following medical testing, we learned that my husband has azoospermia. In nonmedical language: he has significantly decreased sperm production, and without surgical intervention his sperm count is zero.
One year can last an eternity when you feel as if time isn’t on your side, but my husband and I chose to stay steadfast and hold onto this dream we’d been pursuing for nearly four years. With that decision, and thoughts of our Little One in our hearts, we decided that the journey to Tokyo was a family affair, even if our family wasn’t physically complete just yet.
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“Protect the dream” became our motto – it was our rallying cry as we kept these two dreams alive simultaneously: parenthood and elite competition. I first became a Paralympic gold medalist at the London 2012 Games, but after a near career-ending injury in 2014 that resulted in permanent nerve damage to my left arm, I fell short of a medal in Rio. Our fight to make it back atop the Paralympic podium had been over 8 years in the making. But going into Tokyo, we also knew each day we continued in that fight, we did so at the risk of losing our window to have children of our own. So, we held onto hope, filled each day with love, and made a conscious decision to protect the dream at all costs.
In September of 2021 I returned home and as my husband and I embraced for the first time in nearly a month I shared with him the two golds and silver that we won in Tokyo. While one dream was realized, we immediately transitioned to continue in our effort to protect the other as we fought to become parents. Within a month we were starting the process to begin IVF, a journey that was unlike anything we were prepared for.
Navigating through infertility felt daunting on so many fronts. My husband was looking at a world that had built up so much unnecessary stigma around male factor infertility, while I was figuring out how to navigate planning IVF cycles around my athletic career. And as a couple, we faced the reality that while we were committed to this journey, there was no guarantee.
Very quickly, we found ourselves in the depths of IVF: a process that brought two egg retrievals, a micro-TESE surgery for my husband, hormonal treatment for endometriosis, the grief that comes with navigating an unsuccessful transfer, a mock transfer cycle, an operative hysteroscopy and, to date, over 700 injections. Yet here we are, all these months later, joyfully preparing for the arrival of our Little One in March.
Throughout this journey we have been vocal about our infertility, because for us we intimately know that representation matters. I, a woman with a disability, don’t see women that look like me celebrated as mothers in our society. As a female athlete, there is the added challenge of timing something as unpredictable as infertility and motherhood within a quad between Games, let alone one that’s now three years rather than four. That’s not to mention the fact that many female athletes still feel the pressure to keep our family planning private out of concern that it will impact our careers. My husband, a man with infertility, isn’t represented in the conversation of reproductive health. We know we aren’t alone. There are other individuals with disabilities yearning to become parents. Other female athletes who are looking for a path forward to show them it doesn’t have to be an either/or when it comes to their athletic career and desire to become mothers. And the truth is, male factor infertility makes up 50% of the cases of infertility among couples. So, we have decided to share – because you can’t change the narrative if you never speak truth to it.
We know the journey is far from over – while we are expecting our first child, we are simultaneously laying plans to give ourselves a chance at another child in the future, because the reality of infertility is that you have to live in the simultaneous. And as we eagerly plan for Little One’s arrival, we also do so in a world that wasn’t built for a family unit like ours – society still has a hard time envisioning me, a woman with a disability, as capable of being a mother. So not only are we learning what adaptive parenting will look like – we are doing so in a world that is still filled with unconscious bias towards disability. And, as exciting as it is that the Paris 2024 Games are next year, in many ways I still feel the pressure as a female athlete to remind people that becoming a mother this year doesn’t mean I am retiring.
When I first made the U.S. national team at the age of 20, I never imaged I would be named to my 13th national team at 31 weeks pregnant. That is only possible because of the fierce women who came before me and while it is remarkable to see how far we have come, the conversation is far from over. What does that mean: It means we’ll keep having it. And representing that conversation will be the fuel that motivates me as we continue to “protect the dream,” fighting to return to the top of the Paralympic podium. The only difference this time is that Little One will be physically with us, in the stands in my husband’s arms, cheering mama on as I get behind the starting blocks.