On April 13, 2004, I woke up in a Baghdad emergency room, in a scene that could have been straight out of a movie. It was never something I imagined would be part of my story. I was 24 years old and still in my Army fatigues, with one crucial difference: My left leg was gone.
I had faint memories of my Humvee, a cracked windshield and a lot of blood. My ears were still ringing from the deafening sounds of the detonated roadside bomb. As I lay there, I knew my life had changed forever.
When I got to the Walter Reed military hospital a few days later, I looked around and saw so many other soldiers who were far worse off than I was. Some were missing multiple limbs, had traumatic brain injuries or had lost their eyesight. From then on, I considered myself one of the lucky ones. I made a decision to accept the loss of my leg and to move forward and live my life, for the far too many people who had made the ultimate sacrifice.
There were several surgeries and infections along the way, but 52 days after I lost my leg, I took my first steps on a prosthetic limb. It was a day that reassured me I would walk again, that I would once again be independent. But as a lifelong athlete, I wanted more. I grew up an aspiring young gymnast who dreamt of the Olympics. I didn’t want to just walk again; I was looking for something bigger. Once an athlete, always an athlete.
Luckily for me, multiple organizations helped me realize that, not only could I still be athletic, but I could do things I never imagined doing with both of my legs.
In the months following my accident, I learned to ski on one leg. I completed the New York City marathon on a bike powered by my arms. I learned to swim, to bike and to run again. I learned to take the opportunities presented to me and, most importantly, to believe in myself again.
In early 2005, I learned about the U.S. Paralympics, and a dream was born. Somehow, some way, I was going to become a Paralympian and represent the country I defended in Iraq on the world’s biggest athletic stage. I was proud to have worn the uniform of the U.S. Army, and now I wanted to wear the uniform of Team USA at the Paralympic games.
After being medically retired from the Army in April 2005 with a Purple Heart and a bronze star, I began the hard work on the next chapter of my life. Swimming was an obvious choice as I swam at Walter Reed for rehab. I loved the water; it made me feel whole again. I joined my first competitive swim team, learned to love the smell of chlorine and slowly improved my times. When U.S. Paralympic Trials came around in April 2008, I was a long shot to make the team. But realizing that hard work pays off and that dreams really can come true, I had the meet of my life when it mattered most and was named to the 2008 U.S. Paralympic Swim team.
The 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games came and went. Although I didn’t win any medals, I learned that, in life, sometimes the journey is more important than the destination. In an amazing and truly humbling honor, I was elected by my fellow Team USA athletes to lead the U.S. delegation into the Closing Ceremonies, carrying the American Flag before a sold-out crowd in the Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing. I had never been so proud. A proud Paralympian and a proud American.
After Beijing, I turned to the sport of Paratriathlon and I now spend my days swimming, biking and running. Paratriathlon will debut as a Paralympic sport later this year in Rio, and I hope to once again represent the U.S. and swim, bike and run my way to the top of the podium.
This time, I’m more motivated than ever by my 14-month-old son, Dallas, and my husband, Brian. I want my son to grow up seeing his mom with big dreams, in the hope that he too will have big dreams of his own.
Though I’m proud of my athletic accomplishments, I recognize they are very personal pursuits. I would have to say what I value more is co-founding the Chicago-based Dare2tri Paratriathlon Club, where we help other athletes with physical disabilities get active again and chase dreams of their own.
It’s been more than 12 years since I lost my leg, and I can honestly say my life is better now than it has ever been. I am a proud mother, wife, Veteran, elite athlete and motivational speaker, and I have done more in my life with one leg than I believe I ever would have with two. I am forever thankful to those that have helped me get to this point and believed in me along the way. There is no doubt I am in debt to many people.
I have shared my story many times, and I’ve come to see it as an example of the power of choice we all have. I’ve learned that it’s my choice to dwell on the past and what’s been lost—or to accept it and move forward and to be happy. It’s my hope that everyone is proud to tell their story, as well. We all have the power of choice.
Melissa Stockwell is a three-time triathlon world champion, a sport that will make its Paralympic debut in Rio. To learn more about all Olympic hopefuls, visit teamusa.org. The Rio Olympics begin on August 5.