In April 2004, Army 1st Lt. Melissa Stockwell lost her left leg to a roadside bomb, becoming the first female American soldier to lose a limb in the Iraq war. A year and a day later, she was released from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center with a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, a shiny new prosthetic leg and a new outlook on life.
“I’ve done more in my life with one leg than I ever would’ve done with two,” she said. “Life is short. You might as well do the things you wanna do. Don’t wait for tomorrow to do them. You should do them now.”
Stockwell isn’t just talking the talk -- she’s been walking the walk ever since she was granted medical retirement from the Army in 2005.
In the past eight years she’s represented the United States in the Beijing Paralympics, won three paratriathlon world championships, hung out with big names like President George W. Bush and First Lady Michelle Obama, become a certified prosthetist and co-founded the Dare2Tri Paratriathlon club for physically disabled youth and adults.
Next up? Her first Ironman, in November of this year.
Best friend, training partner and Dare2Tri co-founder Keri Schindler, who completed an Ironman in 2011, is helping the 32-year-old Stockwell train and prepare for the race.
“I’m happy to be along on the journey with her,” said Schindler, a day after they’d gone on a three-hour training run together. “I’ll be there in Arizona when she crosses that finish line, there to support her and encourage her like she did for me.”
Schindler trains, competes and works alongside Stockwell year-round and sees firsthand the unique challenges her friend faces.
“When we’re going to a race I see she’s got her bike, her running leg, her biking leg, her crutches,” Schindler said. “There’s definitely a lot more components that go into a triathlon for her.
“Melissa doesn’t run with a knee joint. She swings her leg out to the side, and I see how that puts a lot of strain on her low back. After a marathon, just like an able-bodied person would get blisters on her feet from sneakers, Melissa gets blisters on her residual limb from her prosthetic.
“It’s a different set of challenges, but she doesn’t let any of it slow her down or stop her. She just uses it as motivation to try harder, get faster, be stronger.”
While Stockwell admits she had a few bad days -- even weeks -- after suffering the injury, she says she found strength and inspiration from other vets dealing with similar traumas.
“After the injury it would have been really easy to say, ‘Why me?’” she said. “But then you look at the person next to you and they can’t see and they’re missing an arm and a leg. It kind of put things in perspective. It makes you feel lucky for what you still have.
“I think anyone who goes through a life-changing event like that, you kind of have to make a decision to accept it or you’re going to live in the past. [You think,] ‘What if I had done this or this differently,’ but it doesn’t really matter ‘cause it happened. I made the decision really early on that I was going to accept it and move on.”
With lots of hard work and rehab, Stockwell grew accustomed to her new left leg. She doesn’t wear a cosmetic cover on the above-the-knee prosthetic, preferring instead to wrap it in her favorite colors: red, white and blue.
“I’m very proud of how I lost my leg,” Stockwell said. “I’ve been surrounded by amputees since the day I got injured, so I’m very confident with it.
“Does it suck to wake up sometimes and not have a leg? Absolutely. It takes me longer to go upstairs than it used to. I have a shower chair in the shower. If I get home after a long day of having my leg on all day I wanna take it off when I get home, but then I have to be on crutches and it’s tough to carry things on crutches.
“But there’s no point in dwelling on it. It’s not like my leg is gonna grow back anytime soon. You just have to deal with it.”
Stockwell has done so much more than just “deal with it,” setting and meeting challenge after challenge to prove to herself and anyone watching that she can do as much on one leg as she did on two -- actually, more.
After being released from Walter Reed in 2005, she decided to give swimming a try, moving to Minnesota to train for the Beijing Paralympics and go back to school for prosthetics -- fitting other amputees with prosthetic limbs. Two years later, she moved to Colorado Springs to continue her training at the Olympic Training Center, earning a spot on the 2008 U.S. Paralympic team. She didn’t medal in Beijing, but she says getting selected to carry the American flag into the Bird’s Nest Stadium for the closing ceremonies will always be one of the greatest moments of her life.
After Beijing, she got involved with Operation Rebound, which helps wounded veterans from around the country get involved in triathlons. At first, she was a little dubious.
“I never did a tri with two legs, how am I supposed to do one with one?” she said. But she fell in love with the sport immediately and did her first big race, the Chicago Triathlon, in 2009.
Since then she’s won three straight paratriathlon world championships and is now passing her passion for tris onto others. Stockwell, Schindler and friend Dan Tun created Dare2Tri in 2011 with the modest goal of training eight to 10 disabled athletes to compete in a paratriathlon. The club now serves more than 140 athletes.
“Our motto is ‘One inspires many,’” Stockwell said. “We compete because we want to prove to ourselves that we can. That we can overcome obstacles that have been brought to us. But there’s an added benefit, too, that we can help people be inspired.”
“It’s pretty common to do a race alongside able-bodied athletes, and at the finish-line tent someone comes up and says, ‘You know I was having a tough time and I saw one of your guys pass me or saw you out there on the course and it inspired me to keep going.’”
Not only has she passed the triathlon bug onto fellow disabled athletes, but Stockwell has also turned her boyfriend of nearly two years, Brian Tolsma, into a competitor as well.
“We met at work. He’s in the prosthetics and orthotics field, as well. He has now done a half Ironman and is running his first marathon this year. He said he enjoys it,” Stockwell said. “I hope that’s the case.”
Together the couple has run a half-marathon, crossed the finish line of a half-Ironman holding hands, bungee jumped off the side of a cliff in New Zealand and even walked the red carpet at the 2012 ESPYS, where Stockwell was nominated in the “Best Female Athlete With A Disability” category.
“What a lovely life it is,” she wrote in closing out her most recent blog post.
And if history is any indication, she’s just getting started.