(CBS NEWS) – Melissa Stockwell is returning to represent Team USA, competing in the Paratriathlon in the Tokyo Paralympics this Friday.
Her journey began 17 years ago.
Stockwell was a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army’s Transportation Corps when she deployed to Iraq in March of 2004. Three weeks later, within seconds, the entire trajectory of her life changed.
“We were going into central Baghdad, and we left the gate that morning, and I was in a vehicle, a Humvee, that had five of us soldiers in it. About ten minutes into that convoy, we went under this bridge, and there was just this deafening, I mean, boom,” Stockwell told CBS News’ Dana Jacobson.
Stockwell recalled seeing black smoke and smelling metal. A roadside bomb had exploded, striking her convoy and leaving her gravely injured.
“That roadside bomb that we hit did take my left leg above the knee. It was gone. It was severed immediately. And thankfully, there was a combat medic a few vehicles back who knew I was hurt, pulled me out of the vehicle, put a tourniquet on, and really saved my life,” she said.
Stockwell, who was 24 years old at the time, soon found herself at Walter Reed Army Medical Center among a sea of wounded veterans.
“I remember getting there, and I looked around, and I saw soldiers who were missing both legs. They had a leg and an arm missing. They had lost their eyesight. And I thought, ‘Holy cow, am I lucky.” I mean, all I lost was one leg,'” said Stockwell. “I was a lucky one. I had three good limbs, my mind, my eyes. I had my life. So I’m, kind of, accepting the loss of my leg very early on because, I mean, talk about perspective.”
Once an athletic kid who dreamt of going to the Olympics as a gymnast, Stockwell was now an injured soldier who sought refuge in the pool at Walter Reed. She said a “freeing feeling” overtook her when she jumped into the pool.
“It’s almost like I forgot that I was missing my leg. I randomly loved the smell of chlorine. And I think I probably got in the pool, like, days after I heard about the Paralympics. It was just kind of this like natural fit and decided that I was gonna give it a shot in the sport of swimming,” she said.
That was in 2004. Four years later, she would compete as a swimmer in the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, becoming the first Iraq War veteran to qualify for the Paralympic Games.
“I was a total longshot to make the team. So I’d always been an athlete, but thinking about how amazing it would be to, you know, represent our country I defended over in Iraq, wear that Team USA uniform on the world’s biggest athletic stage,” Stockwell said. “I mean, showing the world that I wasn’t sitting in a dark room with the lights off, but I was out there living it and seeing what I could do.”
She competed in three swimming events and served as Team USA’s flag bearer at the closing ceremony. To carry the flag marked a special moment in Stockwell’s life.
“This flag that I am so passionate about. Sold out stadium. I mean, looking back, it was what was meant to be,” she said.
Stockwell was still serving and representing her country, but she had a different uniform on. “I think, you know, in the military and the Paralympics, it’s a very different uniform…But it’s– they represent such similar things. I mean, defending, representing. It’s all for the same country,” said Stockwell.
Her dream didn’t end there. A few years later, Stockwell would challenge herself, take her athleticism to the next level, and become a triathlete.
“I used to think triathletes were crazy, ’cause it’s like you swim, you bike, and a run, like, all in the same day. And, like, who wants to do that? But I knew how to swim. I had gotten a running leg. I had a bike. I’m like, ‘You know what? Let’s give it a shot,'” she said.
But before she could compete in the 2016 Rio Paralympics, Stockwell decided to have a baby, which added a challenge.
“Coming back from having a baby, and your entire body changed. My son was born in 2014. The Games were in 2016. I had to qualify in 2015. So, like, coming back from that was hard. I like to say it was harder than losing my leg,” Stockwell said.
She said her body and outlook on life changed when she had her son, as well as her priorities.
“It’s your outlook. It’s everything. …It’s juggling things. But at the same time, it kind of gave me that sense of purpose, too. And I was named to the 2016 Paralympic team for Rio. It was great,” said Stockwell.
Despite the new challenge, she would rise above it and qualify to compete in the inaugural Paralympic Triathlon in Rio in 2016. Her race date: September 11th.
“Of any day that it could have been, it was September 11th. Putting that USA uniform on. That race was about so much more than me. It was about those who had given the ultimate sacrifice. Every swim stroke, bike pedal, run step was going to be for them. And crossing the finish line, I got a bronze medal,” she said.
It would be a team effort, as her fellow teammates would capture the gold and silver, having the USA sweep the race on September 11th.
“Three American flags. Our national anthem. I mean, it is a moment that will go down as one of the greatest moments in my life,” Stockwell said.
A great moment in a storied life that revolves around service and patriotism.
“There’s all these, like, metaphoric roadside bombs that I think happen in all of our lives. And it’s, kind of, how you perceive them. We have the choice on how we get through them. And we can choose to accept ’em, to surround ourselves with a team of people that love us, that care about us, to believe in ourselves,” she said. “And, little by little, you take those small successes every day, and it’s amazing what it can end up to be.”
Stockwell was in a bike crash in July and broke her back. Still, she considers herself lucky since she said she could have been paralyzed. Instead, she has an opportunity to make it to the other side and still compete this Friday.