Melissa Stockwell

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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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‘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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U.S. pair wins debut of Paralympic women’s triathlon races

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Americans Grace Norman and Allysa Seely became the first Paralympic women’s triathlon champions on Sunday.

Norman won the very first Paralympic women’s triathlon in the PT4 division as the sport was added to the Games for Rio. Twenty minutes later, Seely led a U.S. sweep with Hailey Danisewicz and Melissa Stockwell in the PT2 division.

NBCSN and the NBC Sports app will have Paralympics coverage later Sunday at 7 ET.

Norman, 18, won in 1 hour, 10 minutes, 39 seconds, beating silver medalist Lauren Steadman of Great Britain by 64 seconds after a 750m swim, 20km bike and 5km run. Norman is also scheduled to race in the 400m preliminary heats later Sunday at Olympic Stadium.

The Ohio native is the first female amputee to qualify for a high school state track meet and finish on the podium. Norman was born missing her left leg below the knee due to congenital constriction band syndrome.

Seely, 27, came from behind to win the PT2 division in 1:22:55, topping Danisewicz by 48 seconds and Stockwell by 2:29.

Seely is the 2015 and 2016 world champion in her class. In 2010, she was diagnosed with Chiari 2 Malformation, Basilar Invagination and Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. She had a traumatic brain injury and an incomplete spinal cord injury at the age of 20. Her left leg was amputated below the knee in 2013. Like Norman, she’s also entered in a track event in Rio, the 200m, which starts Monday.

Danisewicz, 25, is the reigning U.S. Paratriathlete of the Year and was the first American to qualify for a Paralympic triathlon. She had her left leg amputated at age 14 after being diagnosed with bone cancer two years earlier.

Stockwell, a mother of a 1-year-old boy, swam at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics as the first Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran to make Team USA.

The first lieutenant and first female U.S. soldier to lose a limb in active combat, Stockwell then switched to paratriathlon and received a last-minute invite to Rio after not qualifying for the U.S. team outright.

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