Wounded Warrior to World Champion: Melissa Stockwell shares journey in book

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Melissa Stockwell considered herself lucky to only lose a leg.

It was April 13, 2004. Stockwell, three weeks after being deployed to Iraq, was a passenger in the back of a Humvee when a roadside bomb detonated under the vehicle. She woke up in a Baghdad emergency room, still in her Army fatigues. But her left leg was gone, amputated above the knee.

Stockwell became the first female soldier to lose a limb in the Iraq War. She made sure that label alone would not define the rest of her life.

Stockwell relearned how to walk. Four years after the explosion, she became the first veteran of that war to make Team USA, swimming at the Beijing Paralympics.

Then, on Sept. 11, 2016, she earned a bronze medal in triathlon’s Paralympic debut, part of a U.S. medals sweep. She added that to her three world championships, plus a Purple Heart and Bronze Star and another title: mom, to then-1-year-old Dallas.

Stockwell and husband Brian Tolsma since welcomed daughter Millie in 2017.

Stockwell, now 40, planned on not only competing in her third Paralympics this summer, but also publishing her autobiography. She must wait one more year for Tokyo. Her book, “The Power of Choice: My Journey from Wounded Warrior to World Champion,” comes out Tuesday.

Below is an excerpt, the story of Stockwell becoming a Paralympian:

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.

After that first 100 meters, I was way ahead. I executed my flip turn at the wall and took my breath to start the next 100. I could feel time slow down, each moment stretched as my eyes caught Jimi going crazy at the side of the pool. He was swinging his arms like a windmill. I could hear him screaming, Go! Go! Go!

The sound of his voice seemed to fill me with power. I pushed hard through the next 100 meters. At 200, I did an efficient flip turn and scanned the next lane. I executed my stroke, one after another after another. I was still ahead of Elizabeth by a few strokes. Jimi was going absolutely nuts, jumping up and down, his arms flailing like a wild man.

At 300 meters, I was still ahead of Elizabeth. Everything stood out stark and vivid. The wheels in my head processed the fact of what was happening as I went down into the water for my final turn. Am I having a really good race, or is Elizabeth having a really bad one?

I resurfaced from my turn and took a lungful of breath. Everyone I knew in the stands was on their feet and totally out of control. Jimi’s energy pushed me. The energy from my loved ones pushed me. And then I began to really push myself, finding a reserve of energy that felt like I had never tapped it before. I sprinted those final 100 meters at a pace I didn’t know I was capable of; I was surging with every muscle, pushing so hard that it felt like I was in some new world.

When I reached the finish, I hit the wall to an eruption of cheers that made the pool sound like someone had just won the Super Bowl. I was trying to catch my breath when I turned around and looked up at the scoreboard.

There was my name: Melissa Stockwell. I was listed in first place. The time next to it read: 5:03 AR.

Melissa StockwellI did a double-take. That number next to my name: was that real? Did someone make a mistake? Was this happening?

Had I really set an American record time?

As I pulled myself out of the pool, dripping with water, Jimi came running over and wrapped me in one of his signature bear hugs.

“Did I really just set a record?” I asked, my voice high, almost laughing with elation and a sense that it was impossible.

My previous times had been so far off a record, that I didn’t even know what the American record was. I thought there was a typo, or maybe the scoreboard was broken.

I had just dropped a full twenty seconds off my morning preliminary heat. I beat Elizabeth Stone, a great swimmer. And, most importantly, my winning time put me in third place in the world. During those five minutes and three seconds, I went from being a total obscurity and a longshot to someone who had a legitimate chance.

I swam other events during the remainder of the Trials, and I was solid but didn’t set any more records. My mind was fully ahead to Sunday when the team would be announced that was going to Beijing. I now thought I had a shot.

At ten in the morning on Sunday, all of the swimmers gathered in a glassed-in conference room that overlooked the pool. This is where the announcement was going to be made. The swimmers who knew they were a lock for the team were relaxed, chatty, and excited. Others like me, were sitting in anxious silence. My parents were there. I sat with Dick, the two of us making small talk to pass the time.

They started calling out the team members in alphabetical order. One by one, those called got up from their seats and walked to the front of the room. There they were handed a red-white-and-blue hockey-style jersey with the number “08” on the front and their last name stitched on the back—the jerseys reminded me of the Miracle on Ice. The team members were exchanging high-fives and hugging with happiness as the announcer reached the second half of the alphabet. I felt a rush of emotion and had to take a deep breath to try to calm myself. “Melissa Stockwell,” the voice called out.

I turned into an emotional wreck right there on the spot, before I could even get up and go to the front to claim my jersey. My eyes filled with tears. My parents and Dick were crying as well, as we all exchanged tight, emotional hugs.

Somehow, I made it up to the front, where I accepted my jersey and stood with my United States Paralympic teammates. I wiped away the tears that just kept coming.

This was a reality. I was going to be a Paralympian, swimming for Team USA at the Beijing games.

The journey from Baghdad to Beijing felt like it made sense, like a perfect circle that had closed. My choice to serve my country, my choice to stay positive through my rehab, my choice to train at the Olympic facility and work harder than I had ever imagined I could—it had all led to this turning point in my life. I felt a sense of power and purpose, and that all the decisions I had made had led me again to something greater than myself.

MORE: How the Olympics, Paralympics intersected over time

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Ironman Kona World Championships return for first time in three years, live on Peacock

Ironman Kona World Championship
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The Ironman Kona World Championships return after a three-year hiatus with a new format, live on Peacock on Thursday and Saturday at 12 p.m. ET.

The Ironman, held annually in Hawaii since 1978, and in Kailua-Kona since 1981, was not held in 2020 or 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The world championships made a one-time-only stop in St. George, Utah, on May 7 to make up for the 2021 cancellation. The winners were Norway’s Kristian Blummenfelt, the Tokyo Olympic triathlon champion, and Swiss Daniela Ryf, who bagged her fifth Ironman world title.

Both are entered in Kailua-Kona, where the races are now split between two days — Thursday for the women and Saturday for the men.

An Ironman includes a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and a marathon — totaling 140.6 miles of racing. It takes top triathletes eight hours to complete. Very arguably, it crowns the world’s fittest man and woman.

WATCH LIVE: Ironman Kona, Thursday, 12 p.m. ET — STREAM LINK

Ryf, 35 and a 2008 and 2012 Olympian, can tie retired countrywoman Natascha Badmann for second place on the women’s list at six Ironman world titles. Only Zimbabwean-turned-American Paula Newby-Fraser has more with eight.

The field also includes German Anne Haug, the 2019 Kona champ and only woman other than Ryf to win since 2015. Brit Lucy Charles-Barclay, the Kona runner-up in 2017, 2018 and 2019, returns after missing the St. George event due to a stress fracture in her hip.

Blummenfelt, 28 and in his Kona debut, will try to become the youngest male champion in Kona since German Normann Stadler in 2005. His top challengers include countryman Gustav Iden, the two-time reigning Half Ironman world champion, and German Patrick Lange, the 2017 and 2018 Ironman Kona winner.

Also racing Saturday is Dallas Clark, a retired All-Pro NFL tight end with the Indianapolis Colts, and Tony Kanaan, the 2013 Indy 500 champion who completed the 2011 Kona Ironman in 12 hours, 52 minutes, 40 seconds.

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Joan Benoit Samuelson, Olympic marathon champ in 1984, runs London Marathon at 65

Joan Benoit Samuelson
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Joan Benoit Samuelson, the first Olympic women’s marathon champion in 1984, ran her first 26.2-mile race in three years at Sunday’s London Marathon and won her age group.

Benoit Samuelson, 65, clocked 3 hours, 20 minutes, 20 seconds to top the women’s 65-69 age group by 7 minutes, 52 seconds. She took pleasure in being joined in the race by daughter Abby, who crossed in 2:58:19.

“She may have beaten me with my replacement knee, but everybody said I wouldn’t do it! I will never say never,” Benoit Samuelson said, according to race organizers. “I am a grandmother now to Charlotte, and it’s my goal to run 5K with her.”

LONDON MARATHON: Results

Benoit Samuelson raced the 1987 Boston Marathon while three months pregnant with Abby. Before that, she won the first Olympic women’s marathon at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, plus the Boston Marathon in 1979 and 1983 and the Chicago Marathon in 1985.

Her personal best — 2:21:21 — still holds up. She ranks sixth in U.S. women’s history.

Benoit Samuelson plans to race the Tokyo Marathon to complete her set of doing all six annual World Marathon Majors. The others are Berlin, Boston, Chicago and New York City.

“I’m happy to finish this race and make it to Tokyo, but I did it today on a wing and a prayer,” she said, according to organizers. “I’m blessed to have longevity in this sport. It doesn’t owe me anything, but I feel I owe my sport.”

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