These are the words of a person who voluntarily led convoys of Humvees through the most dangerous place on the planet for the United States Army at the age of 24. And triathletes are crazy. The military was always part of Melissa Stockwell’s story. She did it because she loves her country. She did it because she was always going to do it. “People would ask me what I wanted to be growing up. I always said ‘the Army.’ My parents thought it was a phase. Turned out it wasn’t.” It shouldn’t be surprising that somebody so confident in her convictions would go on to accomplish extraordinary things. Just how extraordinary those things would be, however—that is more than surprising. On April 13, 2004, life took an unexpected turn when a roadside bomb detonated next to the Humvee First Lieutenant Stockwell was driving on a routine convoy outside of Baghdad, Iraq. The blast severed Melissa’s left leg above her knee. A year of surgeries and rehabilitation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center followed as Melissa looked toward an uncertain future. “I accepted the loss of my leg quickly. That helped with everything that followed. I looked around and realized, ‘It’s just a leg. It could be much worse.’” Through physical therapy, Melissa discovered swimming. She quickly realized her athletic upbringing gave her a natural advantage in the pool. She was so fast that she earned a spot on the 2008 U.S. Paralympic Swim Team that competed in Beijing. The future was becoming clear. After returning home from Beijing, Melissa needed another challenge—so she started running, which then led to cycling, which then led to Paratriathlon. A sport she once deemed “crazy” would eventually become the one in which she would claim three world championships.
It was at President Bush’s W100 event, a 100K mountain bike ride in Texas’ Palo Duro Canyon, that Melissa’s story would bring her into contact with a fellow admirer of America and its history. Inspired by her dedication, Trek President John Burke pledged the full help and support of the bicycle company. First up was replacing Melissa’s hard-ridden 2008 Trek Madone with a bike that would reflect her story, passion, and personality. Trek’s bicycle artists paint thousands of bikes a year, but few have ever made the team as proud as the Speed Concept they were privileged to make for Melissa. We caught up with Melissa in her hometown of Chicago, Illinois, as she was preparing for the 2016 Paralympics, which are scheduled to begin this September in Rio de Janeiro. Though she now juggles the hectic schedule of a wife and mother in addition to her training, Melissa is as focused and inspired as ever.
Numerous medals, athletic and military, adorn the walls of her Ukrainian Village row house, along with photos of happy moments shared with friends and family. Also on the wall: American flags and Melissa's Purple Heart. The furniture shares the floor space with toys and athletic equipment—hallmarks of an active young family. We take a walk to the park with 18-month-old Dallas, and it’s clear that while Melissa has her eyes set on Rio, her heart clearly belongs to the toddling blonde boy at her side. Despite what the future holds—in Rio or anywhere else Melissa goes—her story endures. It’s one she’s happy to share, and one that we’re all privileged to hear. The story wasn't always filled with such lofty athletic aspirations as it is today, but just as Melissa learned on her journey, not everything goes as planned. But if you’re willing to heed the lessons of her story—embrace the unknown, be positive, and above all else be confident— there’s no telling how significant our own chapters could be. You can follow through Rio and beyond on Twitter at @MStockwell01.