“I’ve always been a person who sees the glass as half full,” says Melissa Stockwell.
That optimistic view is partly what helped Stockwell overcome the life-changing injuries she suffered while serving in the second Persian Gulf War. On April 13, 2004, while she was on a routine mission in Baghdad, a roadside bomb struck the first lieutenant’s convoy. She was critically injured and rushed to a nearby hospital for emergency surgery.
When she woke up, still groggy from anesthesia, Stockwell learned she had lost her left leg. She was the first female U.S. service member to lose a limb in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Despite Stockwell having known the risks of combat, the loss was a shock. “I was 24 years old and all I knew was life with both legs. Losing one is something I never expected,” she says.
Like many wounded soldiers from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, she was transferred to what was then the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Spending time with fellow injured veterans and a great medical team, she says, was essential to her healing process and helped put things into perspective.
“At Walter Reed, there’s a lot of devastation,” the Purple Heart and Bronze Star recipient recalls. “But there’s also a lot of resilience.”
The camaraderie helped Stockwell quickly dust off the positive lens she’d always used to view the world. “I realized how lucky I was that I had only lost one limb,” she says. “I saw that I still had my mind, my eyesight, and my life.
“Of course, I wondered if I would ever walk, run, or be competitive again,” she adds. “But I accepted the fact that my leg wasn’t going to grow back and started trying to figure out how to live my best life without it.”
After 52 days and 15 additional surgeries, Stockwell took her first steps on a prosthetic limb.
Back to the Gym
A few months later, when Paralympic silver medalist John Register paid a visit to Walter Reed, Stockwell found herself inspired to return to her athletic roots.
She had spent her childhood in Georgia dreaming about representing the United States at the Olympic games. “I was an elite gymnast when I was young,” she says. “Before school, after school, pretty much all of my childhood was spent in a gym.” In high school, she also tried her skill at diving and track and field.
So, when Register told the group of veterans that they too could compete in the Paralympic Games if they dedicated themselves and worked hard, it was a no-brainer for Stockwell. “I could represent the country I had defended over in Iraq,” she says. “And after dreaming of being an Olympian as a gymnast when I was younger, it was almost like I had a second chance.”
She began training in swimming events initially because the water made her feel whole again. “It had a very healing effect,” she recalls. “I could almost forget that I had lost my leg.”
In 2008 Stockwell moved near the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., where her talent and determination earned her a spot on the 2008 Paralympic team. She competed in the 100-meter butterfly, 100-meter freestyle, and 400-meter freestyle in Beijing.
She then took on a new challenge: paratriathlon. She fell in love with the sport and has been competing in the three-event race ever since. Her training efforts on the bike, on land, and in the pool have garnered her numerous accolades, including three Paratriathlon World Championships.
Despite taking a hiatus from training after the birth of her son in 2014, Stockwell captured a bronze medal at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio. Standing on the podium was the proudest moment of her life and a completion of the journey she began in Baghdad.
“It was the anniversary of September 11th,” Stockwell reminisces. “It was a Team USA sweep, so my teammates and I got to watch three American flags go up while listening to ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’”
Sharing Her Lessons
These days, the busy 38-year-old mom of two divides her time between speaking engagements and training sessions aimed at competing in the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo. “I feel so fortunate to be alive,” she says. “I’m passionate about so many different things and want to be involved in them because I can be.”
She also helps youth, adults, and service members with physical disabilities and visual impairments develop their skills in paratriathlon at the Dare2tri Paratriathlon Club, which she cofounded. “Sports were really important to my recovery,” she says. “I want to share that with others.”
In addition to empowering people within the adaptive-sports community, Stockwell is passionate about using sports to bring people together to highlight their similarities rather than their differences. “We all face obstacles, whether it’s the loss of a limb or loved one, or struggling through a divorce or finding a job,” she says. “I want to show everyone that we’re stronger and more capable than we think we are.”
No matter what twists and turns you experience, she says, you can always create a meaningful life. “The beauty of life is that when obstacles come our way, we have the power to choose how to deal with them,” she explains. “We can choose to learn from mistakes and unexpected events, which in turn makes us stronger and adds some depth to who we are and to our lives.”