Being Mom comes first for Army Vet Paralympics champ

After losing her leg in Iraq, Melissa Stockwell shares life on social media


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The alarm goes off early, like it always does.

Melissa Stockwell with purple heart certificate

Melissa Stockwell shows her Purple Heart certificate while still recovering in the hospital. She said there were others in the hospital worse off than her, so she didn’t feel sorry for herself.

Melissa Stockwell has another busy day at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs where she’ll swim, run, bike and go through strength training for hours on end.

Then, like most moms, it’s a rush to fit in as much family time with her husband and 2- and 4-year-old children as the clock allows: pick up the kids, take them to swim lessons, grab dinner, read them a story and get them tucked into bed.

In between, she might send an inspirational photo or tweet to her 12,000-plus social media followers.

It’s not just the mom-athlete thing that makes Stockwell special.

She does it all with one leg.

Stockwell was an Army officer in Iraq when she lost her left leg in a roadside bomb. She competed in swimming in the 2008 Paralympic Games, won the bronze medal in triathlon for the 2016 Games, and is currently training with hopes of making the U.S. team for the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo.

And people think she’s pretty rad.

“To the mailman who yelled out ‘you’re an American badass’ as I was on #6/10 of my hill repeats, thank you. You sure lit that fire for the last 4,” she tweeted out Aug. 16.

“There weren’t a lot of ‘poor me’ kind of days. I did my rehab at Walter Reed, and was surrounded by a lot of soldiers who lost a lot more than I did. It almost wasn’t fair to feel sorry for myself. I chose to accept my leg early on.”

— Melissa Stockwell, discussing her recovery after losing her leg in Iraq

Stockwell is just as likely to post a video of herself training in the gym, a poolside photo with her prosthetic leg, or a poignant goodbye letter to her service dog, Jake, she lost last year. Plus, there are plenty of posts about her children and mom life.

Melissa photo with American flag

Army Veteran Melissa Stockwell typically posts photos of herself and her love of the American flag on her Twitter feed. “This is me,” she said. “This is the beauty of America.”

“I just saw a mom grocery shopping with 2 sets of twins, and another boy who all looked to be under 6 years old. If I ever get overwhelmed with momming for two, I’ll remember her. Her and my sister with 5 kids. Ah, perspective… “ she tweeted recently.

Or this inspirational burst first thing in the day: “This morning I took a moment to look around and just appreciate being alive. Take some time to do that today, it’s a day changer.”

And on many Fridays, you can find her posing with Old Glory for a #FlagFriday post.

“I’m proud of our country, that’s all,” she said. “This is me. This is the beauty of America. We all get to think and choose what we want, whether or not we agree on what everyone says or how they express it. I’m going to choose to express myself this way, but that’s the beauty of our country.”

“I like to be busy”

Whatever she posts, she said, it’s not for ego.

“I do the things in my life because I enjoy them,” Stockwell said. “I like to be busy. I like having dreams. I don’t do anything to impress anybody. I guess I do it so I can inspire someone else — if not for those who came before me, but those who came after who can think, ‘I can do this, also.’

Photo of Melissa and her family.

Melissa Stockwell fits a lot into her day between family life and training. She posts regularly about her life for more than 7,000 followers on Twitter.

“Look, I have hard days, too,” she added. “Not everyone is perfect. I post pictures of my kids and dreams because that makes it more real. If someone is having a hard day and sees my posts, maybe they’re a mom, maybe they’re having trouble with their kids, I want to inspire them that there’s always tomorrow.”

That’s pretty much been her attitude since April 13, 2004, when she lost her leg.

“There weren’t a lot of ‘poor me’ kind of days,” she said. “I did my rehab at Walter Reed, and was surrounded by a lot of soldiers who lost a lot more than I did. It almost wasn’t fair to feel sorry for myself. I chose to accept my leg early on.”

Getting into Adaptive Sports

Despite countless surgeries and infections, she took her first steps on her prosthetic leg 52 days after getting injured. Stockwell started adaptive sports and hasn’t looked back. She focused on the Paralympics after meeting fellow athlete and Veteran John Register in 2005. She made the 2008 team, but didn’t medal.

“I learned that in life, sometimes the journey is more important than the destination,” she wrote on her web site. “And as I carried that American flag into that sold out Bird’s Nest Stadium at the closing ceremony, I had never been so proud. A proud American. And a proud Paralympian.”

Her friend, Keri Serota, said the Melissa Stockwell people see online, is the same in person.

“You know, I think what she does is amazing,” Serota said. “It’s hard not to be motivated, moved and inspired by Melissa. I always considered myself a proud American, but I learned more about what that means from Melissa. She makes you pause and realize what it means to be an American and why we have that freedom.

“But she’s also my best friend and I get to spend a lot of time with her and she has no ego. It’s this relatability. She has been in the room with all the living presidents, but she doesn’t take that for granted or have an ego about it. It’s very much Melissa. She can be with President Bush one day and buying ice cream for her kids the next day. She shares all of it — the highlights, lowlights, successes and losses. People, whether they know her or not, have that relationship with her because she is so impressive and exciting, but humble and grateful.”

She first met Bush after he invited her and other wounded Veterans to his ranch, and got to dance with him, a moment caught in an iconic photo shared around the world. She also gave the Pledge of Allegiance at his library opening.

Melissa stockwell barbie doll post

Melissa Stockwell posted a tweet of thanks to Barbie after her daughter got a doll with a prosthetic leg for her birthday.

“He’s amazing,” she said of the former president. “He is accountable for the actions taken while he was in office, and he has always gone above and beyond to show he has not forgotten the lives he impacted. I think that’s wonderful. That’s a pretty great man.”

Besides training, she also started the nonprofit Dare2Tri along with Serota and another friend, and signed endorsement deals with Toyota and Under Armour.

“If I can educate, I will.”

Back on the home front, beyond the training center and social media spotlight, Stockwell focuses on raising her son, Dallas, born in 2014; and daughter, Millie, born in 2017.

“Sometimes I forget she is an amputee,” said her husband, Brian Tolsma. “She doesn’t let it define her, and she is so driven and motivated. She does a lot of things people with two legs can’t do.

“But it always goes back to the kids for me,” he said. “I know the regiment she does during the day, beating up her body daily to get faster, to reach that goal. Then she comes home and it’s just an abundance of energy and patience with the kids. She’s always going, and always has time for the kids, always coming up with new activities. That’s the most impressive thing about her.”

Millie recently celebrated her 2nd birthday. She received a Barbie Doll with a prosthetic leg from Serota, which also made its way to Stockwell’s Twitter page.

“It just shows kids we are just like anybody else,” she said. “Why can’t we have parties and dolls? Kids can play with them and see we are normal, no different,” Stockwell said.

And that’s why she doesn’t mind posting photos online or showing off her red, white and blue, American-themed prosthetic in public.

“If I can educate, I will,” she added. “I am proud to have worn the uniform. I’m proud of how I lost my leg. Plus, it’s really cool to look at. Technology has come so far, even in the past 10, 15 years. Veterans are coming back home and they’re young, they’re active.

“They’re going to continue to help advance the field of prosthetics because they aren’t going to take no for an answer.”

You can follow Melissa’s journey on her web site, Twitter and Facebook. 

Author

Gary Kunich

joined the U.S. Air Force in 1986 and served for 20 years in public affairs. He is now the public affairs officer for the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, VA Medical Center, and is detailed to the National Veterans Sports Program.

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