User1st’s Spotlight interviews highlight individuals who have advanced the rights, opportunities and boundaries of what was thought possible for individuals with disabilities.

This interview format offers insight about the lives, experiences and contributions of those who look to advance the presence of persons with disabilities in mainstream society.

This feature is on Melissa Stockwell. Melissa Stockwell is a two-time Paralympian, former Army Lieutenant, triathlon coach, and motivational speaker.

Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Mrs. Stockwell joined the military after graduating from the University of Colorado. During her first deployment to Iraq, she became the first female soldier to lose a limb during the Iraq War, losing her left leg as a result of a roadside bomb. While most would have been content living their lives as close to normal as possible after such an experience, Mrs. Stockwell decided to push herself even further.

Mrs. Stockwell became the first Iraq War veteran chosen for the Paralympics. She has qualified and competed in two Paralympic games, competing in swimming and paratriathlon events. Mrs. Stockwell won a bronze medal in the paratriathlon event at the Rio 2016 Paralympic games.

Mrs. Stockwell decided to share her passion for paratriathlons by founding Dare2Tri, a Chicago-based triathlon club specifically for athletes with disabilities.

Mrs. Stockwell is a highly regarded motivational speaker, speaking on the topics of overcoming obstacles, perseverance, and living life to its fullest. Mrs. Stockwell is also a mother and currently pregnant with her second child.

To learn more about Melissa Stockwell, check out her website: http://melissastockwell.com/ 

To keep up with her on social media, you can follow Melissa Stockwell on Instagram (@mstockwell01), Twitter (@mstockwell01), and Facebook (Melissa Stockwell USA). 

Melissa Stockwell.Chicago, IL.Photographed at Loyola’s Alumni Gym on assignment for USAT.February 28, 2011..Photograph © Ross Dettman

User1st: Hi Mrs. Stockwell, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. Can you give us a little background on yourself?

Melissa Stockwell: I was born in Michigan but really grew up in Georgia and Minnesota with my parents and older sister Amanda. I was an avid gymnast and spent all of my time at the gym dreaming of being an Olympic gymnast. As I grew a little older, I became more aware of those in the military and wanted to be a soldier wearing the uniform with a flag patch on my shoulder. So anytime anyone asked what I wanted to be when I grew up I always said, in the Army.

User1st: How did you make the decision to join the U.S. Army?

Melissa Stockwell: It’s a short and sweet answer and because I love our country. I realized at a young age how lucky we were to live in America and always wanted to give back. Since I joined ROTC in college, I owed the Army 8 years and planned on doing those years and then seeing where life took me.

User1st: What was your first role in the army?

Melissa Stockwell: I was commissioned as a 2LT [Second Lieutenant] when I graduated college in May of 2002 as part of the Transportation Corps. My first duty assignment was in Ft. Hood, TX as part of the 1st Calvary Division. I was a platoon leader where I got to be in charge of 20+ soldiers and a convoy commander where I was taught to lead a whole bunch of vehicles around delivering supplies.

User1st: In March 2004, you were deployed with the 1st Cavalry Division in Baghdad, Iraq. Was this your first tour?

Melissa Stockwell: Yup, it was my first time there. I signed up for the Army knowing going to war was a possibility. I went where I was told to go and it was part of my job.

User1st: On April 13, 2004, the vehicle you were riding in was struck by a roadside bomb, which resulted in the loss of your left leg. What were your first thoughts when realizing what had happened?

Melissa Stockwell: I had gone 24 years of my life with both my legs and suddenly I was missing one and a lot ran through my head. I have always been an eternal optimist and that was the case even then. Of course I wondered what my life was going to be like and if I would, walk, run and be independent but I knew that I had the strength and the support system to get through it. After seeing the other soldiers at Water Reed, many who were much worse off than I was, I realized how lucky I was. I accepted the loss of my leg and decide to move on and try and not let it stop me from doing the things I wanted to do.

User1st: What was the process to recovery like?

Melissa Stockwell: The hardest part was waiting for my body to recover physically. My mind wanted to be up and walking and learning my new normal but I had to wait for my body to heal first. I knew from the beginning that I would make it through, that was never a doubt. And I never really knew anyone else with a disability so now being one, I realized that someone with a disability can do more than the general public thinks.

User1st: What did you do after retiring from the army? 

Melissa Stockwell: A few things. I moves back to MN where I went to high school and went back to school in the field of prosthetics where I learned to fit other amputees with artificial limbs. But after finding out about the US Paralympics, my main goal was to make the 2008 Paralympic team which I decided to give a shot at in the sport of swimming. So I joined a swim team and started my way towards trying to make the team!

User1st: How did you decide to get into athletics after your injury?

Melissa Stockwell: I had always considered myself an athlete and I knew after I learned to walk that I wouldn’t really be myself until I got back into athletics. I had dreamed of going to the Olympics as a gymnast when I was younger and it was almost like I had a second chance, this time as a Paralympian.

User1st: In 2008, you became the first Iraq War Veteran to qualify for the Paralympics. When did you set your sites on competing in the Paralympics?

Melissa Stockwell: I made a goal to be a Paralympian as soon as I heard about the Paralympics. I first trained in the sport of swimming for 2008 and then again in 2016 for the sport of Paratriathlon. Training is a year round effort and aside from being a mother, that is my focus. I typically train 2-3 hours every day and need to make sure to have time for recovery as well to make sure I am ready for the next day’s workouts!

User1st: You co-founded Dare2tri, a paratriathlon club in the Chicago area. How did you come up with the idea?

Melissa Stockwell: Two of my friends and I co-founded Dare2tri in 2010. I was an athlete with a disability, and they were both involved in adaptive sports and we were all avid triathletes. We realized the importance of athletics in anyone’s life, especially someone with a disability, and wanted to try to bring a group of Paratriathletes to the Chicago area. We grew much faster than expected and 5 years later, we have over 300 youth, adults and injured service members with physical disabilities on our roster. We provide adaptive equipment, training, coaching, racing and take the excuse out of someone doing a triathlon. We have seen first hand the self confidence and self worth that it can add to not just an athlete’s life but their families as well. Out motto is One Inspires Many and our athletes inspire other both on and off the race course!

User1st: What do you believe is one of the greatest technologies that has helped individuals with disabilities live fulfilling, independent lives? 

Melissa Stockwell: The technology is there, it’s just the individuals realizing that they can use it and that their is life after disability. Sports prosthesis have come a long way and give athletes the ability to swim, bike, run and any other sport they want to do. I am not as familiar with equipment for those racing with spinal cord injuries but through word of mouth, I do believe that that technology could be improved upon.

User1st: What sort of impact do you think the internet has had on individuals with disabilities?

Melissa Stockwell: I think the internet and media falls into similar categories and that it is a huge benefit for other people with disabilities. To see what others with similar injuries are capable of with a quick internet search is invaluable. Then to see people with disabilities, athletes or not, in mainstream media shows the general public what we are all still capable of.

User1st: If you could emphasize a single message to every member of the disabled community, what would it be? 

Melissa Stockwell: That they are stronger than they think they are. And to never say you can’t do something until you give it a try!

User1st: What do you consider your greatest professional accomplishment to date? 

Melissa Stockwell: Without a doubt, my bronze medal in Rio. it wouldn’t have happened without everything that came before it. My time in Iraq, losing my leg, competing in Beijing, my family, my son, etc. All of it led up to that moment of being on the podium and getting that medal. I was standing up there on my own, but they were all there with me in spirit.

User1st: What do you hope to accomplish in the near future? 

Melissa Stockwell: I am currently pregnant with my second child due in early August so that will make things even more exciting! After that we will see how my body reacts and changes but I would love to try for Tokyo 2020 for one last go at the Paralympics. Along with athletics and being a wife and a mother, I would love to continue my work with Dare2tri, my work as a triathlon coach and continue speaking and spreading my message. The future us unknown but that’s what makes it great!