How Paralympian Melissa Stockwell Is Fighting Through to Compete After Breaking Back in Accident
Seventeen years ago, just weeks after she arrived in Iraq as an Army convoy commander, she lost her leg when her Humvee was struck by a roadside bomb.
Recovering in the hospital, “I looked around and saw other soldiers missing both of their legs, a leg and an arm, they had lost their eyesight. I thought, ‘Man, I’m so lucky,'” recalls the Paralympic triathlete, one of several Paralympians profiled in this week’s issue of PEOPLE. “I had three good limbs. I had my life. I think perspective is everything.”
She’s needed to lean heavily on that positive attitude in the past two months leading up to the Paralympics Games in Tokyo, which begin next week.
On July 1, while on a training ride, Stockwell, 41, lost control of her bicycle and smashed into a tree, fracturing three of her lower vertebrae.
“There were a few weeks where I couldn’t do anything because the pain was too much,” says Stockwell, the bronze medalist in the triathlon at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio.
Slowly she got back in the water and on her bike, but her injury kept her from doing any training runs until this week, when she put on her running leg for the first time in seven weeks and ran a mile. “To say I am excited is an understatement,” she posted on Instagram.
Speaking to PEOPLE from her home in Colorado Springs just days before her flight to Hawaii where she spent a week training in the lead-up to Tokyo, Stockwell says she knew she’d have little time to prepare for the final leg of her Aug. 28 event (which airs live on at 5:30 p.m. EST on Friday, Aug. 27).
“I can swim. I can bike. I need 3.1 miles of speed and I know I won’t forget how to run,” she says. “Hopefully, adrenaline will take over. I’ll have to run with a lot of heart.”
That same sense of determination helped Stockwell, the first female soldier to lose a limb in combat, heal after her injury in Iraq.
“I grew up as a gymnast and an athlete in college, so you lay in your hospital bed and wonder, ‘Will I ever get back to a life I lived before?'” says Stockwell, who earned a Purple Heart for her service. “But then 52 days after I lost my leg, I stood up for the first time on my prosthetic leg and realized life will go on. I was like, ‘Okay, Let’s see what else I could do.'” She quickly realized the answer was “A lot.”
In 2008, she became the first Iraq War veteran to join Team USA as a Paralympian, competing at the Beijing Games on the swim team. She qualified for her second Paralympic Games in 2016 in the triathlon, a sport she’s so passionate about that she formed an organization to help others with disabilities learn.
Her non-profit, Dare2Tri, provides support, adaptive equipment, training and coaching to get people with disabilities involved in triathlons. “The first thing people say is, ‘How can I do a triathlon? I’m in a wheelchair?’ ” she says. “But we provide all the resources for them. And when they finish, you can see the transformation, the sense of self-worth.”
In addition to her work with Dare2Tri and her Paralympic training, Stockwell and her husband, Brian Tolsma, who are both prosthetists, own an orthotics and prosthetics business in Colorado Springs. Tolsma and their two children, Dallas, 6, and Millie, 4, (who, she says, love to cheer on their mommy and her “robot leg”) can’t join her in person in Tokyo, but Stockwell has figured out a creative way of keeping them close.
“I’ve had these jumbo-sized heads made of from their photos,” she says. “I don’t know if I can put them in the stands, but they’ll be with me in the Olympic village for sure.”
Stockwell knows with her injury, it’s going to be an uphill battle to reach the podium again, but that’s not her only way to win: “Going to my race with a USA uniform on, representing a country that I defended over in Iraq on the world’s biggest athletic stage, showing the world that losing a leg won’t] stop me from doing things I wanted to do, you can’t beat that.”