Melissa Stockwell Among Triathletes Aiming To Make Rio's Paralympics

Sep 17, 2015
Originally published on September 21, 2015 3:19 pm
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Tomorrow in Chicago, triathletes will swim Lake Michigan, then bike across the city of Chicago, and then sprint along the lake shore. I'm tired already. The winners will make the USA triathlon team for next summer's Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. And for the first time, the triathlon will be part of the Paralympics in Rio. It's taken years to get this done. NPR's Quil Lawrence went out training with one of the contenders.

MELISSA STOCKWELL: I don't swim with a prosthetic on.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Melissa Stockwell went to Iraq as a 24-year-old Army lieutenant fresh out of school in 2004. Just weeks after arriving in Baghdad, a massive bomb severed her left leg above the knee.

STOCKWELL: Pop over, get my cap and goggles set, and I'm off.

LAWRENCE: Her Paralympic dreams began in a hospital bed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center amid months of surgeries, infections and questions about her future.

STOCKWELL: Someone came to Walter Reed and put a presentation on about the Paralympic Games, and it was kind of like I had this second chance. I could go and represent my country at the, you know, world's biggest athletic stage and to prove to myself that losing a leg wasn't going to stop me from doing anything I wanted.

LAWRENCE: She started with swimming and did well enough to compete in the Beijing Paralympics in 2008. She didn't win any medals, but she got noticed.

STOCKWELL: I was invited to do a triathlon. And I thought, triathletes are crazy - swim, bike and run was, you know, all in one day seemed a little daunting. But I love challenges, so I went and gave it a shot.

LAWRENCE: Triathlon still wasn't an event in the Paralympics. But with athletes like Stockwell joining the sport, it didn't take too long. When the Olympic Committee announced that Rio 2016 would have Paratriathlon, Stockwell was ranked first in the world. Then, she took a small detour.

STOCKWELL: Last year, I took the year off to have my son, Dallas.

LAWRENCE: Hi, Dallas. How old are you?

STOCKWELL: Dallas is almost 9.5 months. Say hi, bud.

LAWRENCE: Dallas had good timing. He gave his mother nine months to get back in shape to qualify in Chicago tomorrow for next summer's Paralympics in Rio. Just six weeks after the baby was born, Stockwell ran her first mile and asked her doctor afterward if that was OK. Returning to form was slow, but she knows something about rehab.

STOCKWELL: Ten years ago, my goal was to learn to live an independent life with a prosthetic leg. And now my goal is to train as hard as I can to make the Paralympic team and to do well in Rio.

LAWRENCE: Now her race times are better than before the baby. The problem for Stockwell is during the year she was out having a baby, the field of competition got a lot bigger and tougher.

STOCKWELL: Starting from in 2009, I could probably count on my fingers and toes, you know, if I had the other foot, how many people were involved in the sport. And it has just grown so dramatically.

LAWRENCE: So there's no guarantee she'll qualify for the U.S. Paralympic Team tomorrow. She's a strong swimmer, a good runner, but biking is her weak spot.

STOCKWELL: So I come out of the water, the wetsuit comes off, the liner's already on. I'm putting my biking leg on, and there's a pin on the end of it, and it just kind of ratchets in there.

LAWRENCE: There's really a fourth scale in the Paratriathlon, switching prosthetics from a running blade to a hinged bike leg. Those transitions are on the clock and really count.

STOCKWELL: So if I lose the race by five seconds, and I look back at the times, and my transition time is - was six seconds slower than somebody, well, if I would've gotten my leg on five seconds faster, then I could've won the race. So it plays a huge factor.

LAWRENCE: Stockwell says she feels pretty lucky to have survived Iraq, to have started a family, to be able to run, swim and bike. All she wants now is to win a gold medal in the world's first Paralympic triathlon.

STOCKWELL: My running shoe's on. My running leg's on, and then I am off on the run.

LAWRENCE: Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.