Swimmer Mallory Weggemann won a gold medal at the 2012 Paralympics, and she's ready for Rio – but she almost retired after permanently injuring her arm

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At the 2012 Paralympic Games, Mallory Weggemann won gold in the 50-meter freestyle under the S8 classification, just four years after being paralyzed from an epidural injection. Yet two years later she faced another challenge when a freak accident caused permanent nerve damage in her left arm and she had to re-learn to swim.

“My arm injury in 2014 left a lot of unknowns,” Weggemann, 27, who is partnering with Head & Shoulders for their Shoulders of Greatness campaign, tells PEOPLE. “It changed how I functioned in my everyday life, it changed how I looked at my own future personally and professionally and it opened a lot of old wounds from when I was paralyzed in 2008. My arm injury has by far and beyond been one of the hardest things I have been through.”

After she became paralyzed in 2008, the water was one of the only places she felt like she could be free again.

“Coming back to the sport of swimming saved me, it brought me back to life and although it was difficult returning to the pool that black line at the bottom of the pool became my home again,” Weggemann says. “For me, it was the one place at that time in my life that I could allow myself to move, freely and independently. The sport of swimming allowed me to heal, mentally and emotionally following my paralysis.”

But in 2014 – when a shower seat broke under Weggemann at a New York hotel – her arm suffered severe nerve and altered Weggemann’s relationship with the pool.

“Unfortunately, the injury not only comes with loss of range of motion and loss of function, but also incredible hyper sensitivity – and as a result some days just the feeling of the water can send me over the edge,” she explains. “It is hard to see my arm not work the way it should, it is incredibly hard to have to be lifted into my wheelchair because my arm is in tremors and it rocks my world to its core when I see my arm give out.”

“I thought I was going to have to retire, I thought I was going to have to hang up my suit and call it a day, but I knew deep down I wasn’t ready for that yet. I decided that I owed it to myself to see it through, to give it a shot and see what happened.”

Weggemann spent the last two years harnessing her inner strength to get back to her former race times, and qualified for the Paralympics in seven individual events. But she has a totally different attitude going into the Rio Games than she did for London.

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“This time around I have already done the one thing I didn’t think was possible, I returned from injury, I fought through an injury that unfortunately left permanent damage and I made my second Paralympic Games,” Weggemann says. “Now, here I am preparing for the final days leading into Rio and I realize that I have nothing to prove.”

“Rio for me is all about enjoying the journey. Rio is about stringing together every day for the past two years, every ounce of fight I gave and putting it together to do what I love most, to race.”