Paralympian Mallory Weggemann has overcome setback after setback in order to achieve incredible success – including two medals at the 2012 London Games. And she’s hoping to repeat her triumphs at the Rio Paralympics.
A competitive swimmer since the age of 7, Weggemann was devastated when an epidural injection left her a paraplegic at the age of 18 in 2008.
But just three months after she lost all movement from her abdomen down, Weggemann, 27, found peace in the pool – the rhythmic sport of swimming was “comforting” in a world that had quickly become unfamiliar to her.
“I’m strong,” Weggemann tells PEOPLE. “When faced with adversity, I call upon strength and courage and grace and bravery – which we don’t necessarily know we have until we are forced to tap into it.”
“Life gets hard, but everything needs to be put into perspective.”
Weggemann went on to claim gold and bronze at the 2012 London Paralympics and she’s expecting to repeat her success in Rio. Because she still has her legs (though she cannot move them), the athlete explains that her swimming style differs from amputee competitors like teammate and friend Jessica Long.
“I basically look like every other swimmer in the pool besides the fact that my legs don’t move!” she explains. “They drag behind me, so I use my core strength to keep my legs in alignment with my body by using my core – that helps me keep my back end from fishtailing so I’m not flaying everywhere.”
Weggemann cannot push off of a wall or starting block and relies purely on her upper body strength to propel her through the water.
“I adapt and find a way to do it,” she says. “That’s what makes Paralympics swimming so fun. Everybody has a different set of cards and your job is to become as creative as possible to become as fast as possible.”
Related: Paralympic Gold Medal-Winning Swimmer Mallory Weggemann Almost Retired After Injury
Weggemann, a Milk-sponsored athlete, says she owes much of her incredible arm strength to training and her diet.
“I really do drink milk all the time,” she says. “When you can’t use your legs in swimming, you have to work twice as hard to get yourself across the pool and diet is a huge factor in getting the energy and muscle power to do that.”
And while Weggemann is hungry to medal in Rio – swimming is more than just a sport for her, it’s a part of who she is.
“I’d loved swimming ever since I was a little tyke,” Weggemann tells PEOPLE. “I found that love again after my injury and now it’s such an integral part of me.”