Melissa Stockwell: About Living, Overcoming, and Empowering
Meet Melissa: Iraq War veteran, above-the-knee amputee, 2008 Paralympian, three-time Paratriathlon World Champion, co-founder of Dare2Tri Paratriathlon Club, and recent Ironman. In this exclusive ProForm interview, discover where determination, optimism, spirit, and competitive drive can take you—no matter the obstacles.
Born: Jan. 31, 1980
First female soldier to lose a limb in the Iraq War
Lost left leg due to roadside bomb
Awards: Purple Heart, Bronze Star Medal
Career: certified prosthetist, motivational speaker, triathlon coach
How were you able to move past that first day of losing your leg and gain perspective?
I have always been very fortunate to have an awesome support system. My family was there from day one. My friends flew out to D.C. and were in my hospital room at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
I could have asked, “What if?” and “Why me?” Sometimes I had those moments. But the fact is that it happened; I lost my leg. It was a matter of accepting that and moving on.
As I did my rehab at Walter Reed, I met soldiers missing much more than I am: two limbs, three limbs, eyesight, traumatic brain injury. I can’t say enough about how powerful Walter Reed is. Being surrounded by fellow service men and women going through similar circumstances was really helpful in my recovery.
What are some of your personality traits that have helped you through your journey?
Definitely being positive and optimistic. I like looking at the glass half full. And it’s important to put things in perspective. Putting things in perspective early on helped me see that I am one of the lucky ones. I have my life. And I only lost one leg. I chose to live my life with what I have and to be happy with it.
How do you find strength to endure and overcome life’s obstacles?
I feel so fortunate. I am a very proud American and a proud above-the-knee amputee. If I am doing something and it’s tough, I think back to where I came from. I think back to April 13, 2004. And I am thankful for the life I have. I want to live my life for those that gave theirs—the ultimate sacrifice.
The military definitely has a sense of camaraderie. You have that tight knit group that knows what you have gone through. Lucky for us, there are many organizations out there that want to help veterans like myself get their life back to so-called “normal.” You can talk with peer mentors and people who have come before you with similar injuries. They are trying to get you out of your hospital bed doing things you didn’t think you could do. It’s just remarkable. The whole nation is at our backs.
“I want to live my life for those that gave theirs—the ultimate sacrifice
What were some key experiences that helped you begin your journey to competition?
Representatives from the Wounded Warrior Project came into my hospital room and said, “Hey, how would you like to go skiing in a few months?” At that point I couldn’t even get out of my hospital bed or wheelchair on my own. I thought they were crazy.
But I signed up and ended up in Breckenridge, Colorado a few months later. I started out kind of wobbly—skiing on one leg with these special poles. I had to get my balance. By the end of the week I was starting all the way at the top of the mountain and flying down; trying not to be reckless. I had never felt so free. I had the wind in my hair. I went back to Walter Reed with my head held high. I thought if I can do that, I could do anything. So that trip put things into perspective about what I would still be able to do. It was incredible.
After that, a group called Achilles would bring veterans to do various marathons on these bikes you power with your arms. They invited me out to the New York City marathon. I never thought I’d do a marathon; granted I was doing it with my arms on a bike. But being able to do that marathon and cross the finish line, I felt my competitive spirit and drive return. I was able to go back eight years later and run the marathon on my prosthetic leg.
My journey was a whole bunch of things that added up to me realizing I didn’t want losing my leg to stop me from doing anything.
After years of competition, what are some obstacles you still find yourself facing in your training?
I think obstacles for me are probably very similar to obstacles for any athlete. Whether they have a disability or are an able-bodied athlete, it’s still a matter of trying to eat a healthy diet. When the alarm goes off, it’s fighting that urge to turn it off and sleep in.
But I do have the obstacle of training with three prosthetic legs. I have one that I walk with, one that I bike with, and one that I run with—so they are activity-specific legs. I have the obstacle of trying to be comfortable and getting them to fit right. But once that is all said and done it’s just the day-to-day training.
“I am one of the lucky ones. I have my life. I choose to live my life with what I have and to be happy with it.”
You recently finished an Ironman in November of last year. What a huge accomplishment. Tell us about your experience.
That was a pretty awesome day. Most of the racing I do with nationals, world, and the paratriathlon scene are sprint distance triathlons. So they are short, fast, and based on speed. I decided last year was my year for an Ironman. I had the challenge of training for both the sprint distance and endurance all in one year, which was a little bit challenging.
On November 17, I completed the Arizona Ironman in Tempe. It was definitely a different kind of day than what I am used to. I am used to competitors and trying to go as fast as I can. But with the Ironman, my goal was just to finish. I was competing against the clock. I got in the water and took a moment to look around. It was magical. The sun was coming up; there were people everywhere. And I thought, “Wow, I am about to do 140.6 miles.”
The horn went off. Swim, bike, run. It’s a long day. I was fortunate to have an awesome Team Melissa come out and cheer me on. Some of my best friends, my parents, and my boyfriend were there. I got to see them along the course.
The race was tough. Those last couple miles were pretty challenging. But when I got to the finish line, it was like I was in a dream. It was so loud, with so many people. Crossing the finish line made it all worth it.
How is recovering from an Ironman? Is it like any other race?
People say an Ironman is 90 percent mental. You definitely have to be ready for the pain and enjoy it. You have to realize you want to keep running.
People always talk about the preparation for an Ironman, but they don’t really tell you about the recovery. I found the recovery to be just as difficult. I didn’t realize how much strain goes into an Ironman and the stress it can put on the body. So I am trying to get back into my workouts and enjoying them again. It is a challenge.
How has your support system (family, friends) helped pushed you across your many finish lines?
I wouldn’t be where I am without them. I have these crazy goals sometimes. But instead of trying to talk me out of it, they say, “All right.” And they are there for me the whole time. They listen to me talk endlessly about my training—the good workouts, the bad workouts. They fly across the nation to watch me race. I feel so fortunate that I have the family and friends I do. I am also fortunate to have the network of other athletes and people with disabilities. It’s a good life.
If you could leave a message to others just starting this journey you’ve been on, what would you tell them?
Don’t give up. You need to realize it is difficult in the beginning. But give it a few months, take advantage of the opportunities out there, and you will be surprised what you can still enjoy and do. Surround yourself with the people that love you and want you to succeed.
As told to Erica Colvin, ProForm writer