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Having Spent Years Empowering Others In The Sport, Melissa Stockwell Aims For Her Own Rio Paratriathlon Spot

By Stuart Lieberman | March 08, 2016, 11:40 a.m. (ET)

Melissa Stockwell poses for a portrait at the NBC/United States Olympic Committee promotional shoot at Quixote Studios on Nov. 19, 2015 in Los Angeles.

Melissa Stockwell was the first female American soldier in history to lose a limb in active combat, and the first Iraq War veteran to compete in the Paralympic Games.

But that’s old news.

Her story now is everything she’s done since then, as explained in her January TED Talk.

This week, she reiterated that message to TeamUSA.org.

“We have the power to choose our story,” Stockwell said. “I don’t want to be known as somebody who lost their leg in Iraq. I want to be known as someone who lost their leg in Iraq, but then went on and did X, Y and Z. I want to be known as someone who turned something very tragic into triumph. I don’t want to focus on losing a limb, I want to focus on what somebody can do after they lost a limb.”

Four years after losing her leg in Iraq, Stockwell qualified for the 2008 U.S. Paralympic Swimming Team that competed in Beijing.

Check the X.

She then gave birth to her son, Dallas Patrick, in November 2014 with her new husband, Brian Tolsma.

Strike the Y.

Now, Stockwell’s eying that final letter in her alphabet analogy — a career comeback that ends with a podium finish at the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Games in paratriathlon, a sport set to make its Paralympic debut in September.

But first, she must qualify for Team USA, and she can do so by winning the PT2 race at the 2016 Sarasota CAMTRI Paratriathlon American Championships on Sunday in Florida.

American Hailey Danisewicz, an admired training partner of Stockwell’s, already booked her Paralympic place in the PT2 class as the top U.S. finisher at the Rio de Janeiro ITU World Paratriathlon Event in August. The second of Team USA’s slots in the women’s PT2 class is now up for grabs with three-time national and world champion Stockwell, reigning world champion Allysa Seely and marathoner Sarah Reinertsen all racing for it.

The ITU will also award eight further Rio 2016 places across all classifications later this year. Because the United States is so strong in the women’s PT2 category — Team USA swept the podium at the last world championships — three American women from that class could potentially still make it to Rio.

Heading into this weekend, anyone who knows Stockwell can tell her mindset is completely different compared to eight years ago when she qualified for the 2008 Beijing Games.

“A lot has changed,” Stockwell said. “I’ve grown as a person in the past eight years. I’m remarried. I have a son. I know the work it takes to get to the Paralympic Games.

“I think in Beijing, it was all about the journey at that point. Four years prior, I had lost my leg and overcame that. I was really just proud to be there, represent the U.S. and honored to carry the flag during the Closing Ceremony.

“This time around, I don’t want to just go and have a journey,” she continued. “I want to go, compete well and be on that podium. I want to look over at my 15-month-old son and know that there’s a lot of sacrifices and time away from my family that was worth it. My motivation is my family. It’s a family event, and I want to do it for them and for my country.”

For the most part, Stockwell’s journey this time has been funded by a slew of sponsors; she no longer has to depend on her day job as a prosthetist to fund her athletic career.

Melissa Stockwell competes in the cycling portion of the women's PT2 paratriathlon during the Aquece Rio Paratriathlon at Copacabana Beach on Aug 1, 2015 in Rio de Janeiro.

Stockwell’s all-around growth as an athlete has embodied the Paralympic Movement’s progression, almost on a parallel plane.

“In 2008, most of the world and America didn’t know about the Paralympic Games,” Stockwell said. “I would walk into a room, and I would say, ‘Who knows about the Paralympics?’ And maybe half the room would raise their hands. I walk into a room now, and everyone’s hands go up.

“Paralympic athletes are becoming household names, much in thanks to sponsors and partners who have chosen to believe in athletes like myself and put them out there for the public to see in commercials, newspapers and the media.

Stockwell, who can now be seen in NBC’s Rio 2016 promotions, is constantly doing her part off the field of play, too.

As a trailblazer in paratriathlon, in 2011, Stockwell and triathlete Keri Serota co-founded Dare2tri, a Chicago-based club that aims to serve as the premier model for paratriathlon programs across the world.

Dare2tri has grown dramatically in five years. It now has four paid staff members and offers a range of training camps and events for athletes ages 6 to 71. The organization liaises with physical therapy clinics, rehabilitation centers, schools and prosthetic and orthotic clinics, reaching out to people with a disability in hopes of turning them into athletes with a disability.

Although Stockwell is no longer part of the day-to-day operations, she remains involved in the major camps, meetings and recruitment activities as much as her schedule allows.

“If you walk through the grocery store, I’ll probably approach you and tell you about Dare2tri,” she joked.

It’s been “go, go, go” for the 35-year-old since giving birth to Dallas Patrick, but she always seems to have that signature smile on her face and a no-complaints attitude.

“A busy life is a good life,” Stockwell said. “I don’t think any of us athletes have time to relax in our lives, and when we do, we just feel weird doing it.”

And then there’s little Dallas Patrick, sitting in his mother’s bike box, watching it all from the sidelines.

“It’s a story I can tell him when he grows up,” Stockwell said. “He can say, ‘My mom trained really hard for the Paralympic Games, she made it there and was on that podium. Look, this is her medal.’

“Hopefully, he’ll be proud, and that will lead to him having big dreams for himself.

“And then, there I’ll be on the other side, cheering him on.”

Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.