When Melissa Stockwell joined the United States Army after the events of the September 11, 2001 attacks on our country, she knew she wanted to serve. But she never thought that he service and sense of duty would eventually propel her to a career as a world class athlete.
As a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army 1st Cavalry Division, Stockwell was deployed to Iraq, and she later lost her left leg to a roadside bomb, while leading a convoy in Baghdad. Stockwell was the first female soldier to lose a limb in the Iraq War, and for her service in Iraq she was awarded both a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.
After returning home, she dedicated her time and efforts toward helping fellow service members, working as a prosthetist and in serving on the board of directors of the Wounded Warrior Project for a decade. But shortly after settling back into life in America, her athletic impulses tapped at her from within.
“I was always athletic growing up,” Stockwell said, “and after losing my leg I wanted to get back into it somehow.” She said that shortly after formally retiring from the Army in 2005, she took up swimming, and eventually ended up transitioning her swimming efforts and her fervor into remaking herself as atriathlete. Then she set her sights on the next big thing.
“I set a goal to reach the 2008 Paralympic Games,” Stockwell said, also adding that she used that big goal as a motivator. “I knew that if I trained hard enough, I would get to compete on the world stage.”
Train hard she did. Ever since, Stockwell has maintained a rigorous daily schedule or running and biking with a prosthetic leg, and ramping up her swimming to record times, to compete in major events.
And Stockwell’s efforts have paid off too. She won gold medals in three ITU World Championships aka the World Triathlon Series, first in Budapest 2010, then in Beijing 2011, and in 2012 in Auckland, New Zealand. Stockwell also medaled at London 2013 and Chicago 2015, and won a Paralympic Gold medal at the Rio Games in 2016.
As Stockwell gears up for another Paralympic Games, set to begin August 24, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan, I got the chance to speak to her a second time about her outlook training for the Tokyo Games.
Andy Frye: Triathlons are one of the most taxing athletic pursuits, but there must be a huge mental aspect to it.
So walk us through the physical and mental aspects of competing at the Olympic and Paralympic Games level.
Melissa Stockwell: The mental game is a huge part. If I’m starting a race and don’t believe I can go win it, or don’t trust in my training, then I might as well not even race. You have to trust your training, and you have to believe in yourself.
You know, you put the work in every day, and I have a set schedule and workout with my coach. And is every workout a good one? No, but that comes with being an athlete. You learn how to get through a bad workout and brush it off.
I’m fortunate enough to have an amazing family back home, and I can easily take my mind off a bad workout. I wouldn’t do what I do if I didn’t love it. But I get to that starting line, I have to remember that I am there because I truly love swimming, biking and running and also the competitiveness of it. So I am competing with a smile on my face, but really trusting that the work I put in does pay off.
AF: With Tokyo nearing, what do you put in your body and what do get to enjoy?
Stockwell: It’s everything in moderation. All athletes, we know we have to have the protein and the carbs before a hard workout and after a race too, to keep our bodies fueled or able to recover. And I know I’m not alone in this, but I have a sweet tooth and don’t go one night with out dessert. But it is all about moderation and each person is different. You find what works for you.
Sometimes when you are traveling you are at the whim of what is available. But mornings for me is eggs and toast. For lunch, if I had it my way, I’d do some sort of salad with some chicken or protein on it, with some bread on the side. For dinner, no matter what it is, I like some pasta or rice on the side. Carbohydrates are important (as a triathlete) and food is sometimes variable, depending on where you are at.
I would imagine it’s similar as a triathlete. What do you do to set goals and exceed them physically? Or mentally?
Stockwell: It’s both. A triathlon for us is a half-mile swim, a 13-mile bike, and a 5K run. So, it’s long enough that you need that endurance aspect, but it’s a sprint—everything is a fast as you can go. I can’t leisurely run or I am not going to win the race.
My favorite workouts are on the treadmill, when my coach gives me these times and these numbers that make me think “there’s no way I can make this,” but I try—and I do. Pushing yourself to that extreme, and coming off the treadmill, drenched in sweat, when everything hurts—it’s then that you think, “holy cow, I did that.”
It’s because my coach and I believed that I could. It’s then that you have those breakthrough workouts that will show that you are capable of so much more than you think you are.
AF: Covid-19 pushed back the games obviously, but how did it effect your timeline and preparation for Tokyo?
Stockwell: The intensity did get scaled back, as we were preparing originally for an August 2020 start. So then, the idea was to use the times to get workouts in. I had my home gym set up. I could run and bike outside. But I also got to do that alongside my son on his bike, and I wouldn’t normally get to do that.
It gave me this more laid back attitude (about) what I could control. I couldn’t control the dates and that the Paralympics were postponed, or that the world had shut down. But I could control my training. My training was the best way to stay sane a lot of days. I love my children, but my training was my time for myself and my husband was incredible and able to help manage that with me.
The Covid shutdown did do something, maybe making me look at the big picture. I look back fondly at the time I got to spend with my kids. And honestly, a year later, I am faster than I’ve ever been.