When Melissa Stockwell was a kid, she dreamed of representing her country in the Olympics. Full disclosure: That dream came true. But not in a way she ever could have imagined. Stockwell's Team USA uniform comes in two different styles—as a member of the U.S. Army and as a member of the U.S. Paralympic team.
In April 2004, a roadside bomb on the streets of Iraq struck Stockwell's vehicle and took her left leg. After years of rehabilitation, training, and encouragement, Stockwell was named to the 2008 Paralympic swim team and competed in Beijing. On September 7, she will step up to the world stage again in Rio—this time as a paratriathlete and a new mom to her 20-month-old son, Dallas.
We sat down with the Paralympian on behalf of Jif to talk overcoming obstacles, her support system, and what keeps her going for gold.
Parents.com: Your life is incredibly inspiring. You are a veteran with a Purple Heart and a Bronze Heart Medal, and you have the chance to medal at the Rio Paralympics. Did you ever think you would become a Paralympian?
Melissa Stockwell: If you had asked me years ago when I was sitting in my room at Walter Reed Medical Center, I would have said, "No way." I didn't know what was possible, but then I saw others who had similar injuries to me that were walking and running and I said to myself, "If they can do that, then I can too. If I can walk, the opportunities are endless." Being able to get my life back, understanding how to live with a prosthetic, learning about the Paralympics, and watching others compete who had similar injuries to my own, I thought, "What if I can get there as well?"
What sparked your passion for the Paralympics?
MS: I've always been passionate about our country—that's why I joined the military. Wanting to represent our country and wear a Team USA uniform on the world's biggest operative stage meant I had to prove to myself that losing a leg wasn't going to stop me. I had a lot to overcome with this loss, but I didn't want that to define me. Now I'm an athlete, and I'm thinking, 'what [else] can I accomplish?'
The paratriathlon, which features swimming, cycling, and running, will make its Paralympic Games debut in 2016. What are you hoping to accomplish as one of the first paratriathletes?
MS: I put in a lot of hard work since Beijing and am coming back from having my son, who is now 20 months old. I want to go to Rio and show the world what I can do. I want to race well. I want to be on that podium. Watching the Olympics this year, seeing people on top of that podium, and hearing our nation's National Anthem—I want to be there as well. I'm lucky to have a lot of supporters, and I want to show them what's possible.
How do you stay motivated on training days that are especially tough?
MS: I'm motivated a lot by my son. I want him to see that I have these big dreams and hope that he will have big dreams of his own someday. I'm also motivated by wanting to prove to myself that I can still do everything that I used to do with two legs. The Olympics happened two weeks before the Paralympics, so watching Team USA pursue their dreams, seeing what's possible in their own lives, and knowing how well they did in Rio is extra motivation.
What would you share with moms and dads who are having a tough day in the world of parenting?
MS: Parenting is tough! Every day is so unique. Just like sports or athletics, you have to take it day by day, moment by moment. When little things happen or your child is acting up, just be in that moment and relish in it. My son is already going to be 2 years old in a few months. It just goes so fast. I know parenting is not easy, so keep at it. It's one of the most rewarding things I've ever done.
What do you hope to teach your son in the future as he sees you working through all of these obstacles?
MS: I hope that him seeing me with these big dreams teaches him to do the same and have big dreams of his own. Right now, he's one of my biggest cheerleaders, and when that time comes I'll be on the sidelines cheering him on just as loud. It's fun to pass those values down to him.
What has he taught you?
MS: If I don't have the best workout, I'll come home and see him and his smile and everything is put in perspective. As much as I want to go and do well in Rio, there's more to life than athletics. He's added so much depth to what I am and what I want to be.
If you could give three pieces of advice about overcoming a hard day and reaching goals, what would they be?
MS: First, find someone who has gone ahead of you and are doing the things that you want to do, ask yourself what it would take to get there, and do it. There's always a way. Second, believe in yourself, and surround yourself with people who believe in you. That's a huge reason why I'm here today. Lastly, take things day by day, live in the moment, and don't let small things affect the big picture.
What's next after Rio?
MS: We want to expand our family, so more kids are on the horizon. And once an athlete, always an athlete—I'm just not sure at what level yet. Whatever it is, it will be good.