Melissa Stockwell competes in the women's triathlon at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016 on September 11, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.
While serving in the Iraq War in 2004, Army 1st Lt. Melissa Stockwell lost her left leg from a bomb explosion, the first female soldier to lose a limb in the war. As horrible as that was, she remained optimistic about her future.
“My initial thoughts,’’ she said, “were we’re going to get through this and we’re going to be OK.’’
She was far, far more than OK. Despite the lost leg, she became a great athlete, swimming at the Paralympic Games Beijing 2008 and then winning a bronze medal in paratriathlon at the 2016 Games in Rio at age 36. Stockwell won that medal alongside two other Americans who took silver and gold — and they did so on Sept. 11, the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that led to the Iraq War that took away her leg.
“We got to see three American flags go up,’’ Stockwell said of the medal ceremony. “Standing on the podium and all of us showing the world on Sept. 11 that it was kind of how much the human body is capable of and how much ability is in a disability. It was really one of my proudest moments.’’
And what should be an inspiration to others.
“Athletes like Melissa have found that their life after amputation, or their impairment or disease, it can be much richer in many ways than if they had just been a normal person,’’ said her coach, Chris Palmquist. “The people that have these impairments have not let them slow them down at all. They are just the best people. They don’t want to be inspiring, they want to be considered like anyone else. But they really are inspiring.’’
Growing up in Georgia and Minnesota, Stockwell was always an athlete, competing in gymnastics, diving and track and hoping to one day make the U.S. Olympic Team. She attended college at the University of Colorado, where she was part of the ROTC before serving in the war.
“I always lived the athlete lifestyle. I was a big gymnast growing up and an athlete in high school and college,’’ she said. “So after I lost my leg my first goal was to learn to walk and to be independent. But as soon as I did that, I wanted to be an athlete again.’’
Thus, Stockwell started in swimming, where she did not need a prosthetic leg, competing in Beijing in the freestyle and butterfly. She was not satisfied with her performances there and switched over to paratriathlon, though she then also had to ride a bike and run with a prosthetic leg.
Competing in those three sports that make up paratriathlon can be strenuous, but Stockwell always fights hard. In addition to the bronze medal in Rio, she has won three gold medals, a silver and a bronze at world championships.
She also was one of four U.S. soldiers injured in Iraq who were in the good documentary, “Warrior Champions: From Baghdad to Beijing’’ about their fight to recover and get to the 2008 Paralympic Games.
“She would never ever want her whole past life to be different from what it has been,’’ Palmquist said. “She has absolutely no regrets. She has made that awful moment into something so amazing.’’
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In addition to her own athletic success, Stockwell gives motivational talks and in 2011 helped start the Chicago-based Dare2tri foundation for athletes with physical disabilities and visual impairments. She says there are more than 300 athletes on the roster and that she and her fellow coaches have helped take down barriers for them. She tells them to, “Dream big.’’
“Be realistic with your goals, but maybe step out of your comfort zone and go for a race or a time and see if you can get there,’’ she said. “If you can’t, well, maybe you will next year when you learn something about training. Think of taking those chances to really see how far you can get.
“I motivate our athletes to try.’’
As Palmquist said, “Dare2tri has changed so many lives and probably saved lives.’’
The Paralympics essentially got their start in 1948 at the Stoke Mandeville Games in England, where British World War II veterans with spinal cord injuries competed. Now called the International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports World Games, which are still held every other year, they led to the creation of the Paralympics during the 1960 Olympics in Rome.
Decades later, veterans like Stockwell are carrying on the Stoke Mandeville Games’ original mission through the Paralympic Movement. And with the next Paralympic Games coming up in 2020 in Tokyo, Stockwell is determined to compete, even though she is already 38 years old, married and has two children.
Aiding in that quest is her upcoming move to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where Stockwell will join the USA Paratriathlon Resident Program in 2019. She will train alongside her toughest competitors, Allysa Seely and Hailey Danz, and have access to the Olympic Training Center’s amenities, including workout facilities, nutritional counseling, sport science testing and sport psychology sessions.
“I will be 40 years old and trying to show everyone that I’m one of the older ones out there, that an old mama, too, can still try to give the Paralympics another shot,’’ she said of Tokyo. “… I’m doing everything I can to make 2020 a reality.’’
Considering her optimism, fight, determination and success, she likely will make it. And inspire more people.
Jim Caple is a former longtime writer for ESPN and the St. Paul Pioneer Press based in Seattle. He has covered sports on six continents, including 12 Olympics and 20 world series. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.