Paralympian and former U.S. Army Officer Melissa Stockwell runs during a training session on May 27, 2020 in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Like so many things in 2020, the launch of paratriathlete Melissa Stockwell’s book isn’t running to plan.
It was scheduled to debut in mid-July, ahead of the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 and in time for the Paralympic Games that would follow. COVID-19 upended that schedule, just as it delayed the Games and disrupted lives around the globe.
But Stockwell thinks the story told in The Power of Choice: My Journey from Wounded Warrior to World Champion, which debuts this week, will resonate now more than ever.
“When the book was written, COVID wasn’t on the radar,” she said. “Now, we are all in the midst of this pandemic that we never expected. We have no choice but to face it.
“What we can choose is how we face it, what we do to fill our days to make us fulfilled. That’s the most important part of how (the book) can relate to today’s world. It intertwines my life story after serving in the military, losing a leg, overcoming that, going on to become a Paralympic athlete and the message of how we all have the power to choose what we want our life to be.”
Stockwell grew up in Grand Haven, Michigan, as a gymnast, with posters of the “Magnificent Seven” adorning her walls. A deep desire to serve her country led her to join the ROTC at University of Colorado; upon graduating, she was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army as part of the Transportation Corps.
In April 2004, during Stockwell’s third week with the 1st Cavalry Division in Baghdad, her Humvee was struck by a roadside bomb while on a routine convoy. At age 24, she became the first U.S. woman to ever lose a limb in active combat. Her left leg was amputated above the knee.
“Suddenly, I had to find my new normal, and live life with one leg instead of two,” the now 40-year-old recalled.
While recuperating at Walter Reed Medical Center, Stockwell came to think of herself as lucky; she still had her vision and three good limbs, while many of her fellow soldiers did not. Still, she longed to regain her athleticism. So, when U.S. Paralympian John Register visited Walter Reed to talk about the Paralympic movement, she saw a way to regain her identify as an athlete.
In 2008, she became the first Iraq War veteran named to a U.S. Paralympic Team, where she competed in three swimming events.
“I didn’t make the finals, I didn’t have my best times, it wasn’t what I thought it was going to be,” Stockwell said of those Games. “I suffered heartbreak and obstacles, but my life story — losing my leg — almost made it a little easier. I had to trust it, that at the time it was meant to be and I would look back some day and learn something from it.”
More heartache came in 2010, when Stockwell and her husband of eight years made the difficult decision to divorce.
“My story obviously has had many ups but many downs. You have to have the downs, to appreciate the ups,” Stockwell said. “There have been tough moments, whether it is losing a leg, going through a divorce, having dreams of doing well at the first Paralympic Games and, in my mind, kind of failing.
“How I got through these things and ultimately came out better on the other side, is part of this book. … With all the downs I’ve been through, I can look back and honestly say, my life is better because of those things.”
Her disappointment in Beijing helped lead her to paratriathlon, a sport in which she’s won three world titles since 2010. When the sport made its debut at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio, Stockwell claimed bronze as part of a U.S. medal sweep.
Meanwhile, the divorce led her to the person she calls “the man of her dreams,” Brian Tolsma. Like Stockwell, he is a specialist in prosthetics and orthotics, fitting amputees with artificial limbs. The couple has two young children, Dallas and Millie.
In January, they opened Tolsma/Stockwell Prosthetics near their home in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“We want to see patients from the surrounding area, but really all over the nation,” Stockwell said. “It’s literally all about getting them back up on their feet and out there doing the things they want to do. It’s is a labor of love. My husband is extremely involved and I’m involved when I’m not training. And obviously, with two young kids, I’m trying to manage them as well.”
With her children cooped up at home for some weeks during the pandemic, Stockwell savored small pleasures: playing on a trampoline in her backyard, working on jigsaw puzzles and hiking.
“The only time I had to myself was when I was on my bike or on a run,” she said. “I’m grateful for the extra time with them. Usually, I would be traveling for motivational speaking, and I haven’t been on a plane since early March. So, I’m made the most of it and enjoyed the extra time with my kids.”
“I mean, we got my son to ride a bike with no training wheels — that was exciting,” she added with a laugh.
With Dallas and Millie now enrolled in daycare, Stockwell can train more easily for the Tokyo Paralympics, rescheduled for 2021. A few weeks ago, she competed in the 719 Ride, a 14-mile biking event in Colorado Springs loaded with tough climbs.
“The training is still happening. I don’t have to have my peak speed a month from now — now, it’s a year and one month from now,” she said. “So, it’s kind of dialing back the intensity, but I’m still putting in the work, the hours. When races start again next year, I think those of us who get out there and do the training now, will reap the results.”
That includes fellow Colorado Springs residents Allysa Seely and Hailey Danz (nee Danisewicz), her teammates in Rio who won gold and silver, respectively. They are also training for Tokyo, and Stockwell would love nothing more than to bring another three medals home to the U.S.
“Let’s go for it again, let’s have another podium sweep,” she said. “That’s the goal we are all aiming for. It will be hard to top, but I think it can be equaled.”
With COVID-19 still a big concern, there will be no formal book tour for The Power of Choice, although Stockwell may do a few controlled events in cities where she races. She also hopes to create a virtual book club and spread her message online.
“I want people to reflect on their own lives and think, ‘What is going on, and how can I change it to make it what I want to wake up to every day?’” she said. “Maybe your thought process leans toward the negative parts of what happened the day before. Turn it around and look at the positive — what did you do yesterday that was good? If want to do X, Y or Z, the time is not next week. The time to make it happen is now.”