From Iraq To The Paralympics
An Interview with Melissa Stockwell
Melissa Stockwell is best known as an American Paratriathlete and Paralympian as well as an Iraq War Veteran. Melissa lost her leg in a roadside bomb explosion in Baghdad earning both a Purple Heart and Bronze Star. After learning to walk with her prosthetic leg, Melissa went on to train and compete as a swimmer in the 2008 Paralympic Games. Melissa then turned to the sport of triathlon and is a 3x Paratriathlon World Champion with a goal to compete in the 2016 Paralympics in Rio. Melissa inspires those recovering from limb loss and other catastrophic injuries and co-founded the Chicago based Dare2tri Paratriathlon Club. She represents the spirit at the core of the ZIDILIFE mission: she took an initial loss and transformed it into an opportunity to do things she’d never dreamed of and to positively impact others. Follow Melissa’s blog here.
Melissa, we’re really excited to be talking with you. Can you tell us a little more about your background?
I’m excited to be a part of the ZIDILIFE movement! My name is Melissa Stockwell and I am an Army veteran and proud Paralympian. My life path took me to a place I never expected but I’m happy with where I am today and happy to be able to share my story with your readers.
ZIDI is swahili for “go beyond” — this is what we encourage our readers to do (go beyond, become greater, seek more). What would you classify as your go beyond moment?
In April of 2004, while serving in the US Army, I lost my left leg from a roadside bomb and found myself lying in the Baghdad ER. I was thankful to be alive but wondered what my new life was going to be like.
My story eventually took me to Walter Reed Army Medical Center where I learned that I was one of the lucky ones. I had three good limbs, my mind, my eyesight and all I was missing was one leg. At that time my “go beyond” moment was just beginning.
What was the most challenging part of this experience or transformation?
I stayed optimistic throughout my recovery and learning to live without my left leg. I knew that things would never be as they had, but I was resolved to make the best of it. Unfortunately, there were too many surgeries and infections with the added challenge of wondering what my new life was going to be like. I knew that I was in good hands and had a great support system.
What was the best or most enlightening part of your experience?
The nurses and doctors who cared for me were amazing — I owe them my life. 52 day after I lost my leg, I got fit with my first prosthetic. This was a big day as I realized that I could still be independent and live my life the way I wanted to. I had always considered myself as an athlete and I knew I wasn’t going to be myself until I got back into athletics. The care I received motivated me and I realized I didn’t have to say goodbye to those dreams.
How has your experience changed you and those in your life?
In many ways losing a leg was actually where my story begins. A story of turning tragedy into triumph. I had the support of organizations that helped me understand I could still take on athletic pursuits and do things I never thought possible with two legs, much less with one.
“In many ways losing a leg was actually where my story begins.”
With the help of the Wounded Warrior Project I skied in Breckenridge, Colorado 5 months after my injury. With the help of the Achilles’ Freedom team I was able to handcycle the NYC marathon not long after. The Challenged Athletes Foundation encouraged me to try a triathlon with Operation Rebound. All these events made me feel like I could truly do anything and that my injury had made me better, not bitter.
In 2005, John Register from the United States Olympic Committee’s Paralympic Military and Veteran Program introduced me to the idea of Paralympic Games. At that time I learned that the Paralympic Games in Beijing, China were three years away and if I trained long and hard enough I could make it there. And a dream was born. Training for the 2008 games was a whole new set of challenges but it was a path that was as inspirational as it was tough. I’ve since transitioned my focus to Paratriathalons — proving just how amazing and unexpected life’s journey can be.
What advice do you have for readers in a similar situation, or for anyone facing a new change or challenge that feels insurmountable?
I think it’s important to take life’s twists and turns as they come because you never know where they will take you. I have always been passionate about my country, and am a very proud American.
There are tremendous support systems out there, you just need to be open to them and seek them out. Community and support is key. I appreciate being able to share my story with your readers! We all face challenges in life but it’s how we deal with them that determines how far we can go.