Melissa Stockwell had been stationed in Baghdad, Iraq for three weeks. She was 24 years old, living out her dream of serving in the United States Army.
However, on April 13, 2004, a roadside bomb resulted in her losing her left leg.
For Stockwell, it didn’t take long until she got back on her foot and reclaimed her life through becoming a Paralympic athlete.
“While my story has some tragedy behind it,” Stockwell began. “My story is not a tragic one. It’s an example of tragedy turned into triumph and it’s an example that we all have the power to choose our own paths in life, whatever obstacles come our way.”
On Tuesday night, February 20, 2018, Stockwell spoke at the University of Oregon’s Be Series in front of a crowd of over 100 people. She told her story, from losing her leg to becoming a Paralympian, as a part of the Be Daring edition of the series.
Video by: Nicholas Lackides/TrackTown USA
In attendance were the UO triathlon club, local veterans and students, along with representatives from TrackTown USA and the UO Accessibility Education Center.
As a child, the image of holding the U.S. flag on the medal podium fueled Stockwell’s desire to be an Olympic gymnast. She soon realized what she really had a passion for was not gymnastics, but the idea of representing her country.
“On the floor mat before every gymnastics meet,” Stockwell said. “I would stand there with my hand over my heart and I would imagine myself getting that perfect 10 in that American flag.”
Enlisting in the Army during her early college years, Stockwell was quick to learn and became a Second Lieutenant after graduating from the University of Colorado in 2002.
When her story approached that fateful April day, the crowd grew silent as she recounted the moment her Humvee was struck with a bomb.
“There was this defining boom, the loudest sound I have ever heard,” Stockwell said. “I reached down, took my seat belt off and looked over and down. I knew something wasn’t right. There was a lot of blood … At the time, I had no idea the extent of the injury, I had no idea my leg was gone.”
Stockwell leavened that shocking moment by sharing stories of her recovery at Walter Reed Medical Center, including memories of meeting Tom Hanks and Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne.
While being fit for a prosthetic leg, Stockwell medically retired from the Army—she is the first female solider to ever lose a limb in active combat—and was awarded The Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.
Adjusting to her new life, she rediscovered her passion for sports. Back in the U.S., she spent time relearning how to ski and swim, now with one leg, in order to chase that childhood dream of making an Olympic podium.
At the Beijing Paralympics, in April 2008, Stockwell, the first Iraqi War Veteran to ever qualify for the Games, competed in three swimming events. Even though she walked away without a medal, she was given the honor of carrying the American flag for Team USA during the closing ceremony.
“I think in life we all have moments we wish we could relive, over and over again,” Stockwell said. “For me this was one of them. Carrying an object that I am so passionate about into a sold-out stadium and just not believing where my life had brought me.”
The next time she returned to the Paralympic stage, it would be for more than just her talent in the pool – Stockwell soon fell in love with triathlon. She showed pictures of all three different prosthetic legs she uses during a triathlon race; one for running, one for swimming and one for biking.
On Sept. 11, 2016, at the Rio Paralympics, Stockwell finally earned her spot on the podium in the paratriathlon’s Paralympic debut. She proudly displayed the American flag while accepting her bronze medal as part of the U.S. sweep of that event.
“It brought me back to my time at Walter Reed, where I told myself I was going to live my life for those that gave the ultimate sacrifice,” Stockwell said. “I woke up that morning, put on my USA uniform and I knew that race was about so much more than myself.”
After hearing her story, the crowd no longer saw a disabled Stockwell on stage. They saw a three-time World Champion, a two-time USA Triathlon’s Female Paratriathlete Of the Year, a Paralympic bronze medalist, a Purple Heart recipient, a veteran and a mother of two.
“The beauty in life is we have the power to choose where we want our life to go, so choose to make your story a good one,” Stockwell said.