From Baghdad to Beijing to Rio
In September, Melissa Stockwell will travel across the globe. She’ll put on a uniform, and she’ll represent her country as a member of a highly-trained unit.
This is a journey she knows well. Stockwell grew up wanting to serve her country. She attended college, joined the ROTC and upon graduation enlisted in the U.S. Army as an officer.
In 2004, Stockwell was deployed to Iraq. After just three weeks in country, her vehicle hit a roadside bomb. She lost her left leg above the knee, becoming the first female soldier to lose a limb in the conflict in Iraq.
An active athlete and promising competitive gymnast, it was hard to imagine when she first woke up at Walter Reed and during her dozens of surgeries that she’d ever be able to lead an active lifestyle again. Then she was introduced to adaptive sports.
“I went and skied with DSUSA, and that trip kind of changed my life,” she said. “It got me going as far as knowing I could still do things.”
That realization led her to begin dreaming of life as a competitive athlete again.
So she started swimming and competing. A little more than a year post-injury she was competing in swim meets, and in early 2008 she posted a time that qualified her for the Beijing Paralympic games. Stockwell didn’t medal, but she was honored as the flag bearer for Team USA at the closing ceremonies.
“Being able to wear the uniform with the USA letters on it, it completed my journey,” she said.
After returning from Beijing, Stockwell was introduced to triathlons.
“I was pretty much hooked from the start,” she said. “I loved the challenge of three sports and being on the track with able-bodied athletes.”
Stockwell did what she’d always done and threw herself fully into the sport. She started competing regularly, winning three World Championships.
While focusing on her own career as a triathlete, Stockwell was also working to provide the same opportunities to other adaptive athletes that she’d received while at Walter Reed.
In 2011, along with friends Keri Serota and Dan Tun, she co-founded Dare2tri, a chapter of Disabled Sports USA that focuses on introducing athletes to para-triathlon and providing high-level training opportunities for adaptive athletes already involved in the sport.
“We all know how important sports are,” she said. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without organizations that helped me. [Co-founding Dare2tri] is one of my proudest accomplishments.”
In 2014, while Melissa was pregnant with her first child, it was announced that para-triathlon would be added as a medal sport in Rio. As soon as her son was born, she was ready to start training for her second Paralympic games.
“As soon as I heard, it was like, ‘game on!’,” she said.
When working with new triathletes, Stockwell encourages them to take it one day at a time.
“The hardest part is just at the beginning,” she said. “You’re not going to go out and run a 5K on your first time out. Take it day by day and little by little. Be proud of the small accomplishments along the way.”
This summer she’s hoping all of her small accomplishments will culminate in a medal. Not only for herself, but for her country and her son.
“Being a mom and a wife is priority number one,” she said.
Follow along with Melissa’s #RoadtoRio on Twitter and Instagram: @MStockwell01.