‘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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MORE: Rowdy Gaines knows Olympic swim team will look different in 2021

Qualified athletes go into limbo with Tokyo postponement

Mariel Zagunis
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For the 76 U.S. athletes who had already qualified for the 2020 Olympics, a new waiting game has begun, and many of them are talking through their mixed emotions on social media.

Shooter Kayle Browning‘s thoughts played out in real time. She gave a glimpse of her new routine on YouTube (after tending to her dog, who had to go out) but didn’t know whether she would keep her spot on the team. She learned afterwards that USA Shooting intends to keep its qualified athletes on the team despite the postponement.

Fellow shooter Phillip Jungman also went from sadness to relief: “When I saw the news that the Olympics was postponed, my heart dropped a little. A few hours later @usashooting put out an official statement backing all of their athletes that had earned Olympic berths. I just wanted to take this moment to thank them for supporting us all in this time of so much uncertainty.”

LIST: U.S. athletes qualified for 2020 Olympics

Other athletes were relieved that the uncertainty of knowing whether they would have time to train was no longer a problem.

Modern pentathlete Samantha Achterberg: “Lots of mixed emotions, but a sense of relief in some ways.”

Fencer Mariel Zagunis, who has qualified for her fifth Olympics, quipped that she’s throwing herself a “pity party” but was “glad a decision was made sooner rather than later.”

“Disappointed that I won’t be able to go out and fence in the Olympics in 2020, but I’m relieved that the IOC is putting global health first,” said fellow fencer Alexander Massialias.

Several athletes sounded as determined as ever.

“News of the postponement of the Olympic Games means its time to adjust the goggles and refocus,” said triathlete Summer Rappaport.

“Let’s roll,” said sailor Paige Railey. “One more year to become stronger and healthier!”

“I’ve waited my whole life for this moment,” said marathoner Molly Seidel. “To make the @olympics safer for everyone I’m willing to wait a bit longer.”

“If these past years have taught me anything it is that I am capable of going through hell and high water for the sake of achieving the Olympic Dream!” said taekwondo athlete Paige McPherson.

Sailor Charlie Buckingham spared a thought for Olympic organizers:

” I can’t help but think of Japan and what they’ve endured to host the games this summer, only to be faced with the current global situation. To have responded the way they did so quickly is impressive and knowing their culture, next summer’s show will be even better.”

The U.S. softball team is adding one year to a 12-year wait since the sport was last contested at the Olympics in 2008.

“(N)othing has changed as far as the mindset, the work ethic or the goal that we have as a team,” said Valerie Arioto.

Swimmer Ashley Twichell, who had locked down a spot on the open-water team, supported the decision but expressed disappointment and urged “everyone right now to acknowledge whatever feelings they’re having – anxious, sad, confused, lonely, scared, isolated, stressed, frustrated, just to name a few – and know that they are validated.”

But Twichell also drew inspiration looking ahead: “The Olympics can wait, and they’ll continue to be the beacon of hope that they’ve always been, perhaps now more than ever.”

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Alistair Brownlee makes Olympic triathlon three-peat bid official

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In Olympic history, Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt are the only men to three-peat in the same individual event in swimming, cycling or running. Come July 27 in Tokyo, Brit Alistair Brownlee aims to become the first athlete to win the triathlon — swimming, cycling and running — three straight times.

Brownlee, 31, at last decided whether to pursue another Olympics. It’s a yes this summer.

“A year ago I wouldn’t be doing this, because I knew I couldn’t cope with another bad injury,” Brownlee said, according to the BBC, conjuring setbacks in this Olympic cycle including hip surgery and a calf issue. “But in the past year I haven’t been injured. I’ve really enjoyed training and I’ve really enjoyed competing, and preparing to compete.

“And so the decision crept up on me a bit: I want to go to another Olympics, and I want to see what I might be able to do.”

Brownlee, who moved up to the Ironman last year, said in 2018 that he was “50-50” on a Tokyo Olympic run. But after finishing 21st at the Ironman Kona World Championships on Oct. 12, he moved the meter to “definitely swinging towards” moving back down to the Olympic distance.

Brownlee said he would ultimately decide after one more Ironman in Australia on Dec. 1, which he won by 10 minutes in 7 hours, 45 minutes, 20 seconds.

“The 12-year-old me dreamed of going to one Olympics,” Brownlee said, according to the BBC. “So to pass up the chance of just seeing where it leads me this year would be a bit mad.”

Other Olympic triathletes transitioned to the Ironman and never went back, such as 2008 Olympic champion Jan Frodeno of Germany and two-time U.S. Olympian Sarah True.

One other triathlete won an Olympic title after completing the Kona Ironman — Austrian Kate Allen, who was seventh in Kona in 2002, then took gold at the 2004 Athens Games.

Brownlee has completed one Olympic-distance triathlon on the top-level ITU World Series since June 2017, finishing 44th at an event in Great Britain last June.

Last season, Frenchman Vincent Luis ended Spain’s six-year streak of world championships, relegating Mario Mola and Javier Gomez to second and third in the season-long standings.

“The perfect scenario is that I’m in a position where I’m stood on the start line, and I think I can win the race,” Brownlee said, according to the BBC. “But if I’m instead thinking I can scrape a third here, or I’m thinking, I could help another British athlete win a medal here — I would be happy with that.”

MORE: 2019 Kona Ironman World Championships Results

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