Everything changed for U.S. Army officer Melissa Stockwell on April 13, 2004 when a roadside bomb in Iraq exploded, taking her left leg. After weathering the initial struggles that come with learning to live with one leg, Stockwell turned the challenge into a life, career and inspiration for both challenged and able-bodied athletes. Since that day in 2004, Stockwell has gone on to compete in the 2008 Beijing Paralympics as a swimmer, win three ITU Paratriathlon World Championship titles (2010, 2011 and 2012) and finish the 2013 Ironman Arizona triathlon. Now, with her husband Brian and one-year-old son Dallas by her side Stockwell is looking to make the 2016 Rio team, where paratriathlon will make its debut as a Paralympic sport. Here, Stockwell chats about her path to paratriathlon, the growth of the Dare2Tri organization (a non-profit that she co-founded), what it will mean to make it to Rio and how she’s stayed involved with the veteran community.
Triathlete.com: Tell me about losing your leg and how you ended up finding swimming.
Stockwell: After losing my leg I was sent over to Walter Reed Army Medical Center for my rehab and once I was able to get around a little bit and got fit with my first prosthetic I knew I wasn’t really going to be myself until I got back into some sort of athletics. They had a pool and I was able to get in the pool and get some laps in. I didn’t have to wear my prosthetics and I was able to get exercise in. I just loved the way the water made me feel. That started me out in the pool.
Triathlete.com: And then what was your path from there to becoming a Paralympian at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics?
Stockwell: I was just swimming recreationally—I didn’t even know about the U.S. Paralympics, which is crazy because now it’s such a big part of my life. A few months after being at Walter Reed, John Register came and gave a presentation about the U.S. Paralympics. I always dreamt about going to the Olympics when I was younger as a gymnast and it was kind of like I had this second chance as an athlete with a disability to see what I could do in athletics. It was an immediate goal and dream. I was medically retired from the Army in 2005, I moved to Minnesota and joined my first swim team. I started out at the local meets to try to earn a good enough time to go to the qualifying meet. Eventually my times got a little bit better and many laps later I ended up moving to Colorado Springs to focus on the Paralympics at the Olympic Training Center and it was a total long shot to make the team, but I ended up doing better than I ever imagined in trials and then ended up in Beijing.
Triathlete.com: What was that Beijing experience like?
Stockwell: It was amazing. I didn’t do well athletically, unfortunately. I didn’t make finals, I didn’t swim my best time and I was pretty disappointed in that. But just wearing the U.S. uniform on the world’s biggest athletic stage, representing my country—I got to carry the U.S. flag into the bird’s nest for the closing ceremonies—it was a trip I will never forget.
Triathlete.com: How did you discover triathlon?
Stockwell: In 2009, I was invited by the Challenged Athletes Foundation out in California to do a triathlon and I was a swimmer, I had kind of started to run so I thought well I just have to throw some biking in there and give it a shot. I went out there in October and did my first triathlon and fell in love with it. I loved the challenge of all three sports, I loved being on the same course as able-bodied athletes and crossing the same finish line. I became pretty passionate about it early on.
Triathlete.com: You had your son last year. What has the comeback process been like as you look ahead to Rio qualification?
Stockwell: It’s been one of the most challenging things I’ve done. When you have a child everything changes—your body, your outlook—everything. The hope was to get back in shape this year and try to make the team for Rio next year. I went five or six months without running, I had my son and then ran my first mile. It was a 16-minute mile—not a fast mile. So I was pretty discouraged early on thinking there was no way I was going to be able to get back to where I was. Not to mention having to juggle training and life as a new mom. He added a new source of motivation. If I had a bad run I could go home and see him and not get so upset over it.
I had to learn how to take it day by day. Rome wasn’t built in a day so it was about being proud of my accomplishments day to day and week to week. I finally saw my times drop again. I can say that world championships [in Chicago] this year I was finally about back to where I was and satisfied with my level of fitness. It took many months, but I’m definitely back and am continuing to try to get faster.
Triathlete.com: What is the qualification process for Rio?
Stockwell: It’s really confusing, but now that world championships are over we know a little bit more. We know that there are two U.S. slots for my classification and the race where I hope to earn my slot is in Sarasota, Florida in March. That is the race I’m focusing on now. There are also invite slots, but you don’t want to count on that. There are three of us in the U.S. in my classification and all of us are extremely competitive, so the hope is that the third will get an invite slot from the ITU and we’ll all end up in Rio.
Triathlete.com: What would another Paralympic berth mean to you?
Stockwell: I went into Beijing wanting the experience. I wanted to go, I wanted to be a Paralympian. I came out of that with a participation medal, but to get to the Paralympics again—there are no words on how much it mean. I feel like when you’re younger you have all of these things that you want to happen in your life and you never think losing a leg is going to be in there, but if I hadn’t lost my leg I wouldn’t have these dreams of being a Paralympian.
Triathlete.com: You’re so involved in the paratriathlon community. What does it mean to have the sport being recognized on that level?
Stockwell: It’s so exciting. I’ve been a part of paratriathlon now since 2010. It’s been amazing to see where it’s come from. Now there’s so much competition, so much more awareness and having it at the Paralympics will only make it that much better.
Triathlete.com: Tell me about Dar2Tri. How did it come to be?
Stockwell: Dare2Tri was co-founded by myself and two of my friends in early 2011. Obviously I’m a triathlete with a disability and my two friends Keri [Serota] and Dan [Tun] are able bodied, but they’ve worked with adaptive sports their whole lives and so we saw the importance of getting someone with a disability into athletics. We thought why not start this group and see how many athletes we can get. We all got certified in coaching. We had a moderate goal of having eight athletes with a disability do a triathlon, and five years later we have over 300 athletes on our roster. We serve youth, adults and injured service members. We have camps, we have clinics, we have an elite team, we have ongoing goals… It has exceeded our wildest dreams.
Triathlete.com: You are a new mom, you’re very involved in the paratriathlon community and you’re training at a high level. How do you balance it all?
Stockwell: I have a great team. I always say that it takes a village and I have one of the greatest around. I have my husband, who’s extremely supportive. Training is a priority and he watches my son a lot. I have a nanny who works part-time. I have amazing sponsors who allow me to train and be a mom full-time instead of going back to my day-to-day job. I have strength coaches, my triathlon coaches, Team USA, there are just so many resources that I have available to me. It makes it all happen. Are the days busy? Absolutely. Is it sometimes overwhelming? Yes. But it all works out in the end.
Triathlete.com: Can you talk about your involvement with the veteran community? I’ve heard you say in the past that supporting wounded female veterans is a priority for you.
Stockwell: Wounded veterans are a small group to start with and then you add the females in and it’s even smaller. One of my closest friends is another female wounded veteran. I love being a part of the community. I served on the board of directors for the Wounded Warriors Project for nine years. Every year I go out to the Vail Veteran’s Program in Colorado. Whenever I’m able to, I love to meet these veterans and help them see what they can still do. The spirit of a wounded warrior is pretty remarkable. I see people with injuries so much more severe than mine, and their spirit is amazing. They’re thankful to be alive. They’re thankful to have what they have. I like to be involved as much as I can. Veteran’s Day is an amazing day because we get to remember all of those that have served, but in my mind we should remember veterans every day and thank them for everything we have here in the U.S.