CHICAGO — When Melissa Stockwell heard that the ITU Elite Paratriathlon World Championships were going to be held in Chicago — her hometown — it was “like Christmas in July.”
A few months later, she learned that paratriathlon would make its Paralympic debut in 2016 — with the Chicago world championship serving as one of the qualifiers.
“Here in my own backyard, I get to swim in the lake I swim in every week, I get to bike and run with the epic skyline of Chicago among some of the greatest athletes in the world,” she said at a pre-race press conference. “Having my family and local friends and organizations like Dare2tri cheering on the sidelines, it's going to be amazing."
Dare2tri is a paratriathlon club in Chicago that Stockwell co-founded.
But Stockwell’s Road to Rio features a steeper climb than most of her competitors. The 35-year-old Iraq veteran had her first child nine months ago.
“I gave birth to my son, Dallas Patrick, on November 25 of last year,” she said with a big smile. “So he's nine-and-a-half months handsome.”
Stockwell knows what it will take to qualify for the 2016 U.S. Paralympic Team. After losing most of her left leg in a bomb blast in Iraq in 2004, she was introduced to Paralympic competition. In 2008, she competed in the Beijing Paralympics in swimming. The following year, she switched to triathlon and has since won three world titles, her last one in 2012.
She and her husband also wanted to have a child. But timing was key.
“The whole goal was to have a baby last year in the hopes of making it to Rio next year,” she said.
She competed in the ITU Paratriathlon in Chicago last July while four-and-a-half months pregnant and finished second to friend and training partner Hailey Danisewicz.
Both Stockwell and Danisewicz are vying for spots on the 2016 U.S. Paralympic Team in the PT2 category. The U.S. can earn a maximum of two spots in each of the six medal events (three for men, three for women, in categories based on impairment). The U.S. can secure one of those quota spots by winning a world title on Friday. Then the top six ranked athletes in ITU standings as of June 30, 2016, earn a qualification spot for their countries.
Six U.S. athletes, including Danisewicz, have already provisionally qualified for Rio and will lock up their spots if a U.S. athlete wins their division in Chicago. Meanwhile, Stockwell could provisionally qualify on Friday.
Danisewicz and Stockwell are currently ranked No. 1 and No. 3, respectively.
Stockwell jumped back into competition in March — just four months after Dallas Patrick’s birth — and finished third.
A month ago, she won the Detroit ITU World Paratriathlon Event.
“It hasn't been an easy road back, and if any of you are mothers out there, you know that your life changes, your body changes, and bouncing back is not easy,” she said.
But her times are improving with every race, and she is now hopeful about winning her fourth world title — while Dallas Patrick watches (or naps) on the sidelines.
“I'd love to be back at the top of that podium,” she said, “and I'm going to give it my best shot.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.