If Melissa Stockwell’s life were a movie script — which it very well should be — then the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Paralympic Games would be the climax.
Her journey to Fort Copacabana, full of twists and turns the last four years, will come to a close on Sunday, when paratriathlon makes its Paralympic Games debut.
It’s only fitting that Stockwell, the first female American soldier in history to lose a limb in active combat, will race for gold on Sept. 11.
“I probably read that 50 times, making sure that I was reading that it was the right date,” Stockwell said, holding back tears. “I don’t even know how to put that into words. I thought twice about how amazing it’s going to be, to not only be in Rio, but to be there on Sept. 11 wearing a USA uniform.”
The 36-year-old Chicago resident’s story has been told hundreds of times by the media; she’s turned tragedy into triumph in countless ways.
As a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, Stockwell lost her left leg to a roadside bomb on April 13, 2004, less than a month after being deployed to Iraq.
She is both a Purple Heart recipient and two-time ESPY award nominee.
She became the first Iraq War veteran to compete in the Paralympics at the Beijing 2008 Games, finishing fourth, fifth and sixth in her three swimming heats, and carrying the U.S. flag during the Closing Ceremony.
She won three ITU world titles and three U.S. national titles in paratriathlon, all while working a day job to help fit amputees with prosthetics and co-founding Dare2tri, a non-profit paratriathlon club that aims to serve as the premier model for paratriathlon programs around the world.
Along the way, her service dog Jake, husband Brian and now-22-month-old son Dallas Patrick all entered the picture, providing her moral support en route to every triumph.
To add a twist to her tale, Stockwell had to wait for a last-minute invitation to Rio; she was by no means a shoe-in qualifier.
Stockwell didn’t receive one of the eight U.S. quota spots at the end of the qualification period because she failed to win either the 2015 Rio de Janeiro ITU World Paratriathlon Event or 2016 CAMTRI Paratriathlon American Championships. She had to wait four months to hear her fate from the ITU Bipartite Selection Panel.
“I was trying to stay confident and optimistic leading into July 8 when they made the announcement, but I did have my days of doubt, wondering if I would be there in Rio,” she said.
Ultimately, she was invited.
Stockwell has arguably accomplished more off the field of play than most athletes do in a lifetime, and in Rio, her story will come full circle on what has become one of the most commemorative days in American history.
“It’s going to be an emotional day, I’m sure, for many reasons, but to have that added impact is going to be pretty special,” Stockwell said.
“I think a lot when I race about what I’ve had to sacrifice. When I came back after I lost my leg, I told myself I wanted to live my life for those who didn’t come back. For me, my way to do that has always been through athletics. By racing, I honor them. To be able to do that on Sept. 11, I don’t even know what to say. Everything has all come together. It just all makes sense.”
Backed by more sponsors than most Olympic athletes, Stockwell will compete in the women’s PT2 classification for athletes with a severe degree of activity limitation, such as leg amputees. Joining her will be teammates Hailey Danisewicz and Allysa Seely, who have three world titles between them, meaning Team USA could potentially be in for a podium sweep.
“It’s a definite possibility,” Stockwell said. “We’ve done it three times in the past year.”
Stockwell is the only athlete in the PT2 women’s field with previous Paralympic Games experience. She trusts the process, having worked with a sports psychologist to build confidence and learn to “be in the moment” on race day. She’ll go in knowing she has to charge out to an early lead in the swim so her competitors don’t catch up to her on the bike, which has often been the case in the past.
Stockwell’s schedule will be significantly different than at the Beijing Games, though, as paratriathlon is a one-day event.
“It’s weird. It’s just one race. It’s one and done,” Stockwell said. “Hopefully, there’s nothing mechanical that goes wrong, because that’s it. It’s actually kind of strange. The biggest triathlon of our lives will be over in an hour and 20 minutes once we get there.”
Stockwell will prepare for her race the only way she knows how — trusting the process and eating her traditional handful of gummy worms the night before — and she will race for all those supporting her.
She will race for Jake. She will race for Brian. She will race for Dallas Patrick.
She will race for her country.
That’s a lot of pressure for a one-day event.
“Hopefully that experience of being on a stage that size and being able to calm my nerves a little bit helps,” Stockwell said.
“I’m just so thrilled to be there. I just have to pinch myself, because if you asked me four years ago how I wanted my life to go, this is it."
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.