Paralympian Melissa Stockwell On American Pride and Inspiring Perspectives
The 41-year-old athlete, who lost her leg in the Iraq War, recently competed at the Tokyo Paralympic Games.
If there's one thing Melissa Stockwell is feeling at this moment, it's gratitude. Ahead of the Paralympic Games this summer in Tokyo, the U.S. Army veteran had been injured in a bike incident after running over a branch and losing control of the bike. Stockwell learned from doctors that she suffered a back injury that would prohibit her from training for a few weeks. Despite the severe scare, the 41-year-old athlete was able to compete in the Games, placing fifth in the women's triathlon competition. Amid a year filled with physical challenges and plagued by the COVID-19 pandemic, Stockwell is thankful for the experience in Tokyo.
"I mean, it was a very different Games, but I think it made it even more special," Stockwell tells Shape. "[It was a] celebration of sports, making it to Tokyo. Just to be there, it was amazing." (Related: Anastasia Pagonis Won Team USA's First Gold Medal at the Tokyo Paralympics In Record-Breaking Fashion)
Stockwell, a bronze medalist from the 2016 Games in Rio, competed in the triathlon PTS2 event in Tokyo this summer, with Team USA's Allysa Seely winning gold. For Paralympic events, athletes are grouped into different classifications based on their disabilities to ensure fair competition all around. Stockwell is in the PTS2 group, which is one of the classifications for competitors who use a prosthesis, according to NBC Sports.
Back in 2004, Stockwell's life was forever altered when she became the first female American soldier to lose a limb in the Iraq War. The vehicle she and her unit were driving in at the time was struck by a roadside bomb on the streets of Iraq. "I lost my leg 17 years ago, I went to the hospital, and I really realized how lucky I am," she says. "I was surrounded by other soldiers with much worse off injuries, so it was hard for me to feel sorry for myself, and I feel like that kind of puts things in perspective through every aspect of my life. Do I still have bad days? Absolutely, but I'm able to look around and realize just how lucky we are to have the things that we do have."
Stockwell was medically retired from the Army in 2005 following her injury. She also received a Purple Heart, which is awarded to those killed or wounded while serving in the military, and the Bronze Star, which is awarded for heroic achievement, service, or meritorious achievement or service in a combat zone. That same year, she was also introduced to the Paralympics by John Register of the U.S. Olympic Committee's Paralympic Military and Veteran Program, who presented on the Games at the Walter Reed Medical Center in Maryland. Stockwell was intrigued by the idea to represent the U.S. again, but as an athlete, according to NBC Sports. With the 2008 Beijing Paralympics just three years out at the time, Stockwell turned to the water and swam as part of her rehabilitation at Walter Reed. (Related: Paralympic Swimmer Jessica Long Prioritized Her Mental Health In a Whole New Way Ahead of the Tokyo Games)
Stockwell eventually moved out to Colorado Springs, Colorado in 2007 to continue to train at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. A year later, she was named to the 2008 U.S. Paralympic Swim team. Although she didn't medal at the 2008 Games, Stockwell later shifted focus to triathlon (a sport that consists of running, cycling, and swimming) and nabbed a spot on Team USA's inaugural para-triathlon squad in 2016. And while Stockwell is going to give herself some time to digest before figuring out her future plans post-Tokyo, the mother of two is looking forward to spending time with her children, son Dallas, 6, and daughter Millie, 4, and husband Brian Tolsma.
"My favorite moments are with my family, and this weekend we went camping," she says. "And the little things like going for walks around the neighborhood with my family and the dog. Being at home and being surrounded by the people that are my closest are among my favorite things to do."
Beyond her nearest and dearest, the military forever holds a special place in Stockwell's heart. This summer, she became a brand ambassador for ChapStick — of which she's a longtime fan, BTW — as the brand continues to champion American heroes. ChapStick is also honoring and supporting military first responders through a partnership with Operation Gratitude, a non-profit that enables Americans to express their appreciation for the military, veterans, and first responders via letters and care packages. The brand recently released a limited-edition set of sticks (Buy It, $6, chapstick.com) featuring American flag packaging and for every stick sold, ChapStick will donate a stick to Operation Gratitude. Additionally, ChapStick (which has supported U.S. troops since World War II) has committed $100,000 through product and monetary donations to Operation Gratitude, which will help fill and ship care packages to American heroes.
"I have been a fan of ChapStick for really as long as I can remember," says Stockwell. "I always have it around, it's always with me, it's kind of come full circle to be a brand ambassador."
With the 20th anniversary of September 11, 2001, drawing near, Stockwell has also reflected on America's resiliency and what she has shared with her young children. "September 11 is a day I celebrate every year. I think you celebrate the resiliency of America; you celebrate those Americans that, instead of running away from a burning building, they ran into it to save their fellow Americans. It kind of goes to show the Pride of America," she says. "My kids, they are obviously 4 and 6 [years old] and are starting. to understand things, but, as often as I can, I share with them what our military does, what we've done, what those that were in the uniform have sacrificed in hopes that they realize how lucky they are to live where they do."