Interview with Melissa Stockwell: Veteran, Paralympian, Motivational Speaker, and Author
Updated: Feb 15, 2021
1. What motivated you to join the military?
It sounds cliché, but love of my country is my motivation. I just wanted to give back and be a part of something that is bigger than me. I knew very early on that being in the military was part of my calling.
2. What was the most positive thing about your time in the service?
It wasn't really one event that stands out. It is more the values that I learned in the service that still stick with me. I learned how to be a part of a team and work together. My time in the service made me a better, more selfless person.
3. How did you lose your leg?
It was April 13th, 2014. I was deployed over to Iraq, and on a routine convoy through central Baghdad a roadside bomb struck the vehicle I was in and ultimately resulted in the loss of my left leg above the knee. There were five of us in the vehicle, but I was the only one injured.
4. Do you ever wonder "why me?"
Sure, I had those thoughts, but they were fleeting. All I had to do is look around Walter Reed, the hospital that most of the wounded soldiers were sent, and those thoughts went away. I only lost one leg while many others lost all four appendages or suffered even worse injuries. I couldn't be full of self-pity for long. Instead, I was grateful that it wasn't worse.
5. Discuss your rehabilitation (both mentally and physically) after being wounded.
I had to have 15 different surgeries. I was in an inpatient facility for 3 months and outpatient for 8 more months after that. I accepted my new identity pretty quickly. The physical side of things was much harder for me. The waiting game was the worst! At one point, I was scheduled to go home, but then the doctors discovered an infection. I had to get a revision surgery where they removed 6 more inches of my leg. The setback was hard because I was so excited to go home.
6. When did you first become interested in competing in the Paralympic Games?
When I was 8 or 9 years old, I was big into gymnastics. There was an American flag in the gym, and I just remember thinking I want to compete for my country. At the time, I was thinking of the Olympics, but after losing my leg, that couldn't happen. When I was doing rehabilitation at Walter Reed, I attended a presentation about the Paralympics. I was immediately hooked and knew it was something I wanted to pursue. Swimming was a big part of my rehabilitation at the hospital, and I set my sights on competing in the 2008 Beijing Paralympics. With a lot of hard work, I made that a reality and got to represent our country in Beijing as a Paralympian. After Beijing, swimming was a big part of my rehabilitation in 2008, so I got pretty good at it. I thought I would compete solely in swimming, but after awhile I wanted a bigger challenge, so I decided to tackle Triathlon.
7. Share a story from your past two Paralympic Games that really sticks with you.
September 11th, 2016 in Rio was one of the greatest moments of my life. USA swept the podium that day with me winning bronze and my teammates winning gold and silver. It is something I will never forget.
8. How does your prosthesis or the fact that you’re an amputee hinder your athletic performance?
To be honest, I don't really know any different. I'm just happy that I can do all the thing I am able to do. I'm very satisfied with my current prosthesis. However, I have learned that biking without it is easier for me. Cycling with one leg helps me get into a better position and allows me to get up in the saddle. I swim with my prosthesis off, so that is really when I feel in my element. I love how I glide through the water. It feels like nothing can stop me.
9. What are your goals for Tokyo?
Well, I have to make it there first. With the pandemic, things got delayed. There is a race in May that will help me earn the points I need to make the team. If I do, then I really want to make it back on the podium. Having a repeat of 2016 in Rio would be amazing.
10. What are your biggest frustrations/limitations in your daily routine that stem from being an amputee?
Going up stairs is probably the hardest thing for me to do because I can't go step over step, but I’ve learned to adjust and work with it! Things can sometimes take longer for me than others, and I have to use a shower chair when showering. When I workout in the heat, sweat can be an issue, but there are ways to manage it. When my kids need help at night, I have the extra step of putting on my leg before going to get them. None of those are a big deal, but just more annoying or a hassle than anything.
11. Do you struggle with body image, confidence, or self-esteem?
I don't now at all. I like my body and am proud of how I lost my leg. However, at the beginning it was a little hard to get used to. It was just different. I remember thinking that my leg looked funny in pants because my prosthesis didn't fill out my pants the way it used to.
12. How do your kids and husband react to your leg?
They don't know any different. I met my husband after I lost my leg. We met in school while we were both studying to be prosthetists. He makes my legs now and is around it everyday, so it doesn't phase him in the slightest. My kids think it's normal too. They ask me if I need them to get my leg for me and things like that. It's just second nature.
13. What do you love most about being an amputee?
I like having a platform that can hopefully show people that setbacks don't have to limit us. I have more opportunities now than I had before losing my leg. I especially love showing kids that anything is possible.
14. If technology was improved even more than it is now, what is one change you would make to your prosthesis to make it function better or improve the look/design?
It may sound simple, but I would love a prosthesis that would allow me to walk up the stairs more easily. My leg is so short that I don't have much leverage. I would like for that not to matter some day.
15. What made you and your husband decide to start up a prosthetics company?
My husband used to work for Ottobock. His position got eliminated, so he was searching for something else. We figured it was a good time to move to Colorado Springs so I could train. He has always wanted to start his own business, so it seemed like the perfect time to start Tolsma Stockwell Prosthetics. We love fitting high level patients, but we fit anyone from kids to adults with orthotics of prosthetics. It's gratifying to give back to the amputee community.
16. When did you get the idea to write a book and begin doing speaking engagements?
I just want to inspire others. I thought writing The Power of Choice could help me reach more people. I want my readers to know that they have the power to make their life what they want it to be. I get the same opportunity when doing my motivational speaking. It's just another way to give back and encourage others to be the best versions of themselves.