Melissa Stockwell lost her leg in the Iraq War. Now she has her sights set on the Tokyo Paralympics.
Earlier this month, military veteran Melissa Stockwell completed her first paratriathlon since the pandemic upended the world and brought sports to a halt. The Purple Heart recipient and mother of two has her eyes set on the delayed Tokyo Paralympics – but for now, she told CBS News that was just "thrilled to be back."
"To have a race – everyone was on such a high, just so giddy being back on the race course," she said from Colorado Springs, Colorado on Monday. "This whole COVID time of training – it's been a year now, where we've been training in uncertain times. Will Tokyo happen? Will it not? How are we going to qualify to get there? But my teammates and I have continued to believe it's going to happen, we continue to get up every morning, put the work in."
The 41-year-old has come a long way to return to this stage. In 2004, the former Army officer became the first woman to lose a limb in active combat when an IED exploded during her daily convoy in Baghdad, Iraq – just a month after being deployed there.
Her life took a turn, but she decided to follow her childhood Olympic dreams. After rehabbing and learning about the Paralympics, Stockwell trained as a swimmer and participated in the Beijing Paralympics four years later, becoming the first Iraqi War veteran to qualify for the games in swimming. While she didn't earn a medal then, she pivoted to competing in the paratriathlon and won her first of three world championships in the sport in 2010. She reached Paralympic glory in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro and earned a bronze medal.
In the coming months, she and her team will train and compete in races in order to qualify for the Paralympics in Tokyo, which like the Olympics, was moved to this year because of COVID-19. The team representing the U.S. will be chosen in July, Stockwell said.
Stockwell said she's driven by her family, especially her children, ages three and six, and wants to show them that if "you have a dream, you work hard towards it, and it can pay off." She's also motivated by soldiers that can't compete because of injuries they've sustained or who have paid the ultimate sacrifice, and they're on her mind when it gets tough on the race course.
"That's what I think about because I am so lucky... Sure, I don't have a leg, but I have three good limbs, I have my mind and my eyesight, my life," she said. "And I get to go out there and swim, bike and run with the USA uniform on and represent this country that I love so much."
Stockwell is passionate advocate for the Semper Fi & America's Fund, a charity that has helped more than 26,000 service members, veterans who have lost limbs and their families with financial assistance and mentorship, including her.
"It's an organization that encompasses so much of just, the sister and brotherhood of being in the military and just helping out with, with everything from putting food on the table to trying to chase these athletic dreams," she said.
"I wouldn't be where I am if it weren't for the help of them," she added.
While reflecting on Women's History Month, Stockwell said if her story can help motivate someone, she's all for it.
"I feel like I have done more in my life with one leg than I ever would have with two, and doing what I love and the passion behind that inspires somebody else to maybe go out and try something they never thought they could do," she said. "That's kind of the cherry on top of it all."
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