Melissa Stockwell: From wounded soldier to Paralympian

Paratriathlete Melissa Stockwell poses for a portrait at the USOC Rio Olympics Shoot (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Paratriathlete Melissa Stockwell poses for a portrait at the USOC Rio Olympics Shoot (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

In April 2004, Melissa Stockwell became the first U.S. woman to lose a limb in active combat when an IED exploded during her daily convoy in Baghdad, Iraq. She has since gone on to become a two-time Paralympian, culminating in a bronze medal in Paratriathlon at Rio 2016. And it all started with a choice. 

On 13 April 2004, U.S. Army officer Melissa Stockwell set off on a ‘ride-along’ to learn the route of a supply delivery convoy she was due to take over the following day. She had only been deployed to Iraq a month earlier.

“We left our gate and about 10 minutes into the ride, we went under this underpass and it was deafening. I mean, boom and black smoke,” Stockwell revealed during an exclusive podcast with the Olympic Channel.

“The smell of metal, the windshields, crafts and vehicles swerving. And ultimately, we had hit a roadside bomb.”

The Humvee she had been driving in crashed into the side of a local woman’s house. And as she emerged from the scene, covered in blood, she realised that something was not right.

“Lucky for me, there was a combat medic a few vehicles back that knew I was hurt, ran up and started to, what I thought was administer first aid, but really saved my life because I was losing so much blood."

“But what I didn't know then and I know now is that my leg was gone and then severed. And that was the first day of my new life of living life with one leg.”

But just that the power of that one choice...

made my life incredible in so many ways.

The power of choice

It would be easy to think that such a life changing moment would lead to a period of denial or self-pity. But Stockwell made a deliberate choice to “accept the loss and move on”. A choice that, in her own words, “propelled my life in ways that I could never have dreamt of”.

It has become a philosophy by which Stockwell has gone on to live her life by, and the title of her new book; The Power of Choice: My Journey from Wounded Soldier to World Champion.

“So that choice, I think, all of our lives are kind of driven by the choices that we make,” Stockwell explained. “But just that the power of that one choice kind of, you know, made my life incredible in so many ways.”

Reigniting the dream

Growing up, Stockwell was a talented gymnast, even harbouring a dream of one day going to the Olympic Games. Having lost her leg, Stockwell began learning about the Paralympics when the U.S. Paralympian John Register visited the Walter Reed Army Medical Center where she had been undertaking rehab. And this new discovery began to reignite her childhood fantasies.

“It's almost like I had a second chance of becoming this Olympian that I had dreamt of being. Only this time it was that as an athlete with a disability,” said the three-time ITU Paratriathlon World Champion.

But it wasn’t gymnastics that became the catalyst to fulfil her dreams. As part of her rehabilitation, Stockwell began swimming, and felt an instant connection to the sport.

“When I got in the water for the first time after losing my leg… it almost made me feel whole again. It's like I forgot as though I was missing my leg. I just loved the way the water made me feel.”

From then on, her dreams took flight, as she made the decision to pursue her goal of becoming a Paralympian, even if it seemed like a total “long shot” at the time.

“My times were, I mean, so far from where they needed to be when I first started. And I had a long way to go. But I wanted to try to make it a reality.”

To take 20 seconds off of the race from morning to night.

I mean, I don't know what happened, but it was incredible.

Fulfilling the dream

The horn went off. The swimmers hit the water. I sprinted out past Elizabeth, working hard, probably racing the first 100 meters a little more recklessly and at a faster pace than would have been prudent. I knew this was a pace that I couldn’t keep up, but this was probably my last shot at the Paralympics in Beijing.” - Melissa Stockwell in her book The Power of Choice: My Journey from Wounded Warrior to World Champion.

Only four years after Stockwell lost her leg, the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games were due to take place in People's Republic of China. By that time, Stockwell had become a formidable swimmer. During the swimming Paralympic Trials, Stockwell had lined up in the water with a hope and dream of making the USA Team.

And that day, dreams would come true.

As Stockwell pulled herself out of the water at the end of a race she had swam at a pace she hadn’t even known she was capable of, she looked over to the scoreboard.

Two letters followed her time: A. R.

Unbelievably for someone who had swam 20 seconds slower only earlier the same day, Stockwell’s time of 5:03 had broken the American Record and placed her third in the world.

“I had never even looked at the American records. I mean, I was so far from them at that Paralympic trials. And, you know… to take 20 seconds off of the race from morning to night. I mean, I don't know what happened, but it was incredible.”

Melissa Stockwell of the United States competes in the women's 400m freestyle S9 Swimming event during the 2008 Paralympic Games (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)
Melissa Stockwell of the United States competes in the women's 400m freestyle S9 Swimming event during the 2008 Paralympic Games (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)
2008 Getty Images

The journey to Paralympic glory

The Beijing Paralympics ended up being a disappointing experience for Stockwell, who failed to make the swimming finals for the 100 m butterfly, 100 m freestyle, and 400 m freestyle - the three events she competed in.

“I didn't have good athletic performances,” explained the athlete, remembering the disappointment she had felt. “And at the time, I mean, that was my life.”

But in many ways, Beijing may have been the catalyst for the glory that awaited her. After swimming, she turned her hand to Paratriathlon in 2009 - a decision that paid immediate dividends.

“That was actually something I never expected either… after Beijing 2008, it's funny,” recalled Stockwell.

“I thought, I'm old. I'm 28-years-old, I'm too old. I'm not going to continue with the Paralympic Games. And then in 2009, I do a triathlon, fall in love with it, fall in love with the sport.”

In 2010, Stockwell became ITU Paratriathlon World Champion - a title she retained in 2011 and 2012.

The happiest bronze medallist in Rio

In 2016, Stockwell finally achieved Paralympic glory. By that time, she had had a baby and, as she sought to return to elite competition, she was offered an invitational spot on the USA Team. Even though she was a three-time World Champion, the podium seemed a long way from reality.

But, once again, Stockwell achieved the improbable, finishing the race in third in an American clean sweep of the medals.

It was a moment that Stockwell will cherish forever.

“You know, I mean, it's so cheesy to say that, like, dreams come true. But I mean it actually happened and I got a bronze medal. It felt like a personal gold. I was the happiest bronze medallist in Rio. I was out of control, like of just pure joy.”

Four years on, the 40-year-old is once again dreaming - this time of another USA medal sweep at the Tokyo Games next year. It would be a remarkable continuation of the journey for an athlete who considered herself “too old” when she competed in Beijing at age 28.

“The goal is to be back in Tokyo, wear that uniform, be back on the podium. You know, I think in the best case we have another USA sweep. So I do train with my teammates who I raced with back in Rio. And we train together. We push each other. We motivate each other. And yeah, the goal is to be back on that podium with both of them.”

And who would bet against another dream coming true for the wounded warrior who went on to achieve Paralympic glory.

For the full interview with Melissa Stockwell, check out the Olympic Channel podcast linked below.

Podcast with Melissa Stockwell