CHICAGO — Melissa Stockwell crossed the finish line with a smile. Not because she finished second in the Chicago ITU World Paratriathlon event Saturday morning. But because she is running for two.
The three-time paratriathlon world champion and 2008 Paralympian is 20 weeks pregnant.
“My goal was to not walk on the run,” she said with a laugh at the finish. “I just wanted to go out there and do it, and I’m really happy with how it went.”
Stockwell, 34, finished second in the PT2 category behind teammate and protégé Hailey Danisewicz, 23. A graduate of Northwestern University, Danisewicz is the reigning paratriathlon world champion.
Danisewicz covered the 750-meter swim, 20-kilometer bike, and 5-kilometer run in 1:32:48. Stockwell swam the third fastest time of the day (among both men and women) and finished with a total time of 1:38:11.
Both women call Chicago home, and Danisewicz met her mentor three years ago at Dare2tri, a paratriathlon club co-founded by Stockwell.
“Hailey’s come so far in the past couple years,” said Stockwell. “To have seen her from her very first 5k (race) ever up to world championships last year, just to see her success, it’s amazing. I’m so proud of her.”
For her part, Danisewicz considers herself lucky to have Stockwell as both a mentor and a fellow competitor in the PT2 category (above-the-knee amputee). Stockwell has helped her with the logistics of triathlon and given her tips. But the Iraq War veteran has also taught her more.
“I think that Melissa’s the epitome of what an athlete should be in every single way,” she said. “She’s taught me a lot about character and humility and respect and what an athlete should be.”
Stockwell lost her left leg above the knee in April 2004 while serving in the U.S. Army in Iraq. When her Humvee struck a roadside bomb in Baghdad, she became the first female to lose a limb in active combat. After rehabbing at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, she made the U.S. swimming team competing in the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games and was the U.S. flag bearer in the Closing Ceremony. In 2009, Stockwell took up triathlon because she liked the variety of three sports.
Danisewicz lost her left leg nine years ago after battling bone cancer. Chemotherapy and surgery put the cancer into remission but left her leg with little function. In an effort to regain her active life, she decided to have her leg amputated above the knee when she was 14. She took up paratriathlon six years later as part of an internship requirement.
“At first I hated it,” Danisewicz told her alma mater’s alumni magazine last summer. “I wasn’t good at swimming, biking or running, and I was just doing the race to cross it off my list.”
Now Danisewicz can call herself a world champion — a title that she claimed after passing Stockwell in the run during the ITU World Triathlon Grand Final London Paratriathlon last September. Stockwell had earned the title from 2010-2012.
“It was kind of crazy because Melissa was someone that I looked up to for so long and never really thought that I’d be on that level,” said Danisewicz of the windfall. “But it finally did happen. It was very humbling.”
In Chicago’s summer heat and humidity, Stockwell could not challenge Danisewicz in the ITU paratriathlon event on Saturday. With her baby due on Nov. 28, Stockwell said that the Chicago race is her last this year.
“I’m supposed to keep my heart rate down, but it’s hard to keep it down out there on a race course,” she said. “For safety purposes, so I don’t push myself too hard, I need to cut back a little bit.”
Both Stockwell and Danisewicz are aiming for Rio in 2016, where paratriathlon will make its Paralympic debut. Although there are currently six paratriathlon categories in ITU events, there will only be three medal events (per gender) in Rio. The International Triathlon Union has yet to announce those categories but has stated that qualifying nations can send up to two athletes per medal event.
“I’d love to be on the Road to Rio,” said Stockwell. “There’s still a lot that has to happen to make it there, but that’s the ultimate goal.”
As for having to face her friend and mentor to qualify for Rio, Danisewicz is not worried.
“When we toe the line, we’re competitors,” she said. “But at the end of the day, we’re best friends, and that comes first.”
“Best case scenario, we’re both there in Rio racing together,” added Stockwell.Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org and has covered three Olympic Games. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.