This story originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of USA Triathlon Magazine.
Melissa Stockwell will never forget the day triathlon made its Paralympic debut in Rio.
The retired Army lieutenant was the first athlete to exit the swim, 28 seconds ahead of the field. Her teammate Hailey Danz (then Danisewicz) passed her on the bike to take the lead, and a third compatriot, Allysa Seely, blew by Danz about halfway through the 5-kilometer run and went on to victory. All three Americans led the race that day, and by the time Stockwell ran onto the blue carpet, her two countrywomen were waiting at the finish with a U.S. flag in hand.
“That race was the highlight of my life,” Stockwell said. “I was probably the happiest bronze medalist in Rio.
“Seeing not one, not two, but three American flags and [hearing] the national anthem on September 11, in USA uniforms … there was so much about that day,” said Stockwell, who lost her left leg to a roadside bomb while serving in Iraq in 2004.
Since then, much has changed.
Stockwell gave birth to her second child in August 2017 and continues to compete at age 39. Silver medalist Danz grew stronger across all three disciplines and switched to cycling without her prosthetic (a technique used by above-the-knee amputees that offers more leverage and saves her 4 pounds). Gold medalist Seely spent much of 2017 in the hospital undergoing 10 major surgeries — some of which, she said, “the odds of surviving weren’t great” — only to go undefeated in 2018 and capture her third world title.
So can the U.S. repeat the sweep in Tokyo next year?
One obstacle will be the country quota.
The only way the U.S. — or any nation — can enter three women in the PTS2 division in Tokyo is if two qualify outright and one receives a special invitation from a joint committee comprised of Paralympic and ITU officials. That’s what happened leading up to Rio. Stockwell spent four months in limbo before receiving the go-ahead. The committee decided to award the extra berth to the three-time world champion, ostensibly to make the field more competitive.
But now, other women in the PTS2 class have become stronger and faster.
“I don’t think any of us could confidently say that we are the top three competitors in the world any more on any given day,” Seely said. “Maybe some days we are. Some days we aren’t. More girls are in the mix. I feel like it might be hard for us to get that third spot this time.”
Another complication: the country quota also applies to the qualifying races.
No more than two women per country can enter the PTS2 division at ITU races unless another athlete withdraws (which is how the U.S. managed to go 1-2-3 at the 2015 Rio test event) or if they represent the host nation. Host nations receive additional berths (which is how the U.S. swept the podium at the 2015 ITU World Championships in Chicago).
This time around, the U.S. will most likely host fewer ITU paratriathlon events during the 12-month qualification window, so it will be hard — if not impossible — for all three women to have an equal shot at earning the maximum points.
A world championship win, for example is worth a whopping 700 points (compared to 550 in a World Paratriathlon Series event or 450 on the World Cup circuit).
“If Allysa and Hailey want to do every [World Series] race and block Melissa from racing, they could,” said U.S. coach Derick Williamson. “They have earned the right to start every one of those races [by virtue of their rankings]. And sometimes, it’s more than just the points. Sometimes they have sponsors who pay bonuses for a win or a podium, so they’re factoring that in.
“Sport is not always fair,” he said. “You need the dominos to fall your way. If we can put three of our women in the top four or five in the world [by June 28, 2020, when the qualification period ends], then I feel like that’s as much as we can do.”
To that end, all three women have joined the nascent Toyota USA Paratriathlon Resident Program at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. For the first time, they all train in person every day with a coach (Williamson), all facilities lie within in a small radius, and they have full access to strength training, physical therapy and nutritionists.
Seely, 30, and Danz, 28, joined the program in April 2018, at its inception, after previously training in Arizona and Chicago, respectively.
Now, Seely said, “Every workout is very prescribed, very targeted, super-specific. I know exactly what I’m supposed to be doing, the numbers I’m supposed to hit, the paces, the power, the speed.”
But the prospect of training with one’s closest rival wasn’t easy at first. Danz said, “I kind of came in like: I don’t know if we’re going to want to train together but [Allysa] was all about it early on, really encouraging and supportive, so I was like, ‘OK! This can work! That’s really a pleasant surprise.”
“I think both of us had the mentality that we would be stronger together,” Seely said.
It proved to be true. In 2018, the two shared the podium every time they competed in the same race.
Then, in January 2019, Stockwell uprooted her husband and two toddlers (Dallas, 4, and Millie, 1) from Chicago to join the group.
“I saw how much Hailey progressed last year,” Stockwell said. “I thought: now or never. If I don’t try, I’d always wonder what if? My goal was always to get back to where I was [in 2016] but I need to be faster than that. I’ve never trained this much, this hard — 16 to 20 hours a week now, with a lot of strength training that I didn’t do before. Also, I can’t emphasize enough the team part of it. When you’re training remotely, you have no idea what anybody else is doing. In your mind, you believe they’re nailing every workout. In reality, nobody does that.
“My times are not close to theirs right now,” Stockwell said of her PTS2 teammates, “but by being here, I feel like I’m progressing faster than I was anywhere else. As I try to reach Hailey and Allysa [in training], I hope I’m passing my competitor from Japan or Spain.”
But as with any group of athletes who share the same goal in an individual sport, challenges arise, and that’s where Williamson steps in.
“Prior to working with him,” Danz said, “I was much more emotional in my training and racing. A bad workout would totally derail me. Derick’s helped me look at things more objectively and stay focused on the long-term plan. I have full faith in him. I don’t know if I’d ever really experienced that before.”
But not everyone leaves every session with equal confidence. “If they can see their competition kicking their butt and they can’t respond or match it, you’ve got to think pretty quick how to make sure the athlete can get as much out of today, bounce back, and be ready for tomorrow without feeling completely defeated,” Williamson said.
“Every day, I have to try to be very equitable in my attention, my coaching, my expectations so it doesn’t feel like you’re just coaching to one person or to your highest-level athlete,” he added. “But it’s also [about] helping them understand that every morning you’re swimming next to your biggest competition in the world — and it’s an opportunity to be pushed. It’s an opportunity to break barriers and form positive rivalries that can help you be a better athlete than you could ever be without it.”
Whatever awkwardness may remain, Seely said, “I don’t think anybody has let it get to them or cause any sort of rift or drama. If somebody felt they weren’t going to excel under those conditions, they probably wouldn’t be here.”
“We feed off each other,” Stockwell said. “I don’t know if it would work for everybody, but it works for us.”