‘Power of choice’: Melissa Stockwell on a Paralympic dream deferred

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Melissa Stockwell, a Paralympic triathlon bronze medalist and the first female U.S. soldier to lose a limb in active combat, reflected on the Tokyo Games being postponed to 2021 in a first-person essay. Stockwell’s autobiography, “The Power of Choice: My Journey from Wounded Warrior to World Champion,” is due out in July

Two Tuesdays ago, my teammates on the USA Paratriathlon team got to the pool at the usual time of 7:30 a.m. and swam in the state of the art swimming pool at the Olympic Training Center as we did every morning. We talked about how lucky we were that we were still able to swim because so many other pools around the nation had closed due to Covid, and we felt a sense of pride as we got out of the pool that day. We had a sense of calm knowing that when it came to the OTC, athletes always came first, and they would do everything they could for us.

Fast forward 12 hours, when we all got the call that, because of government mandate, the OTC would be closing its doors and all the facilities that we used daily were no longer available to us for at least four weeks. It was a shock as we all rushed to get our belongings out of our lockers, but something that we were confident we could adapt to. We talked with our coach and made training plans that involved biking and running outside or on a trainer inside and setting up a home gym to include swimming-based strength workouts.

A week later, it was announced that the Olympic and Paralympic Games were postponed until 2021. I think we all knew it was a possibility, but the thought of it actually happening seemed improbable. Not only the impact of the Games in general, but we had all been training with an end game in sight. Tokyo 2020, and we were so close, almost as if the finish line was in reach. And while the decision made by the IOC was the right decision because health always comes first, it made many athletes, including myself, reassess their life timelines, and if waiting another year was really in the cards.

For almost all athletes, an Olympic or Paralympic dream takes sacrifices. Sometimes it’s living paycheck to paycheck or time away from your family to train or race. Maybe it’s putting off having a family until after the Games or hanging on day by day as an aging athlete hopes that their body holds up for one more Games. One more year can feel like nothing to some athletes but an eternity to others.

Personally, I moved my husband and two young kids out to Colorado in early 2019 to train at the Olympic Training Center in hopes of making it to Tokyo. Along the way I turned 40, opened a prosthetic business with my husband and limited my speaking engagements so I could train and give my Tokyo dreams a shot. We would sometimes count down the months until I could be at our new office more, not spend weeks at a time away from my kids and pick up more speaking opportunities to bring in more income. Not to mention a body that feels it age every morning!

But when I really thought about it, those were all fleeting thoughts. Ones that immediately popped to the surface but were quickly overtaken by the desire to see a dream through to completion. One year, that was it! And I quickly chose to take this opportunity and do the best I could with it. Spend more time with my family, taking on home projects I’ve often put off and doing my best to help in the community where I can while maintaining my training as best I can.

When I lost my leg in Iraq 15 years ago, it was something I never could have imagined. It was an obstacle that came into my life, and I had to choose how to deal with it. Instead of choosing to feel sorry for the loss, I chose to say, “Ok, ALL I lost was one leg, now let’s get back to living.”

While this situation is far different, it is yet so similar. None of us ever imagined we would have these immediate dreams taken from us and postponed a year. None of us ever imagined we would be sitting in our homes week after week on a stay-at-home order. But we are, and we all have the power of choice on how we deal with it. That’s the beauty of life. Having a choice with how we deal with unknown obstacles that come our way.

My book, “Power of Choice,” is one of choosing to persevere and to triumph over tragedy. It’s my own story about how I chose to take losing a leg and turn it into a life where I’ve done more with one leg than I ever would have done with two.

So while this postponement was not in our plans, let’s choose to make the most of it. Focus on our health and being thankful for it. For us athletes, it’s knowing that even though the year has changed, the dream hasn’t. And when Tokyo does happen, it will be such a celebration of sport and bringing the world together. I have no doubt it will be worth the wait.

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