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Sunday, April 20, 2014  
Iron maiden
Melissa Stockwell, a US army veteran and an amputee, is a driving force in getting people with disabilities moving, writes Julie Deardorff

ARMY veteran Melissa Stockwell has one strong, healthy leg. The other is a scarred, 6-inch stump that she has proudly nicknamed ‘Little Leg’.

She throws birthday parties for this shortened limb, always dresses it in her favourite colours -- red, white and blue -- and has trouble imagining going through life any other way. “I’ve done more with one leg than I ever could have with two,” she often says.

The first female soldier to lose a limb in Iraq, Stockwell, 32, has managed to turn a traumatic above-the-knee amputation into an uplifting experience, one that motivates people of all abilities. Since the injury, she has shaken hands with presidents, won three consecutive paratriathlon world championships, run marathons, skied down mountains and raced 267 miles across Alaska in the longest wheelchair and handcycle race in the world.

Earlier this month she declared, “I’m going to be an Ironman,” on her blog and signed up for Ironman Arizona, a punishing 2.4-mile swim and 112-mile bike ride, followed by a 26.2-mile run.

But Stockwell’s physical feats only partly explain why a company like Trek, which ended its relationship with disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, now touts her as one of their ‘great athletes’, calling her an inspirational role model.

Stockwell also empowers others to become more physically active, healthier and socially connected through her work as a prosthetist, fitting amputees in the US and Guatemala with new limbs. In 2011, she co-founded Dare2Tri, a triathlon training group for people with disabilities, where she works as a coach and mentor, often swimming, biking or running alongside her athletes. Stockwell is also an instrumental part of Blade Runners, a running group for amputees, and is active in organisations ranging from the Wounded Warrior Project to the Challenged Athletes Foundation.

“Melissa understands what her role is on the planet,” said her coach, Stacee Seay, national manager for TrainingBible coaching and the head coach for Dare2Tri. “Her injury does not define her, but it certainly, certainly makes her who she is today. She has taken what has happened to her and turned everything about it into a positive.”

“Be known not for what happened to you but what you choose to become,” Stockwell recently typed out on Twitter.

An estimated 25 million Americans have a mobility impairment -- including 6,144 US troops who have lost limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are at increased risk of obesity, fatigue, pain and deconditioning on top of their primary disability, said James Rimmer, director of the Lakeshore Foundation/University of Alabama at Birmingham Research Collaborative, a rehabilitative science research programme.

“This group remains one of the most physically inactive and obese groups in our society,” Rimmer said. Some studies suggest that “disabled people on average spend 18 hours a day sitting down or lying down, and 1 in 6 are completely inactive 24 hours a day,” he said.

Exercise, in addition to building strength and stamina, can also have a powerful psychological effect on those with disabilities. For Stockwell, moving makes her feel whole again.

“Sports are one way for people to develop a sense of worth, give purpose, develop social relationships and give them a sense of drive,” said Marca Bristo, president and CEO of Access Living in Chicago. “They often allow people to travel and do things they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do.”

Stockwell, the youngest of three girls, has always been passionate about sports and her country. “She’d get goose bumps just hearing the national anthem,” said her mother, Marlene Hoffman. A competitive gymnast, diver and pole vaulter during high school in Minnesota, she joined the ROTC while studying communication at the University of Colorado.

Stockwell had been in Iraq just three weeks when she lost part of her left leg to a roadside bomb April 13, 2004 -- a day she now celebrates as the arrival of Little Leg. A platoon leader and first lieutenant, her convoy had been travelling under a bridge in Baghdad in an unarmoured Humvee when she heard a deafening explosion. Her leg was stinging; when she looked down, she saw a pool of blood where a leg should have been.

Later, once she learned the leg was gone, Stockwell told her dad that she’d be fine; life would go on. She apologised to her mom for making her worry. And she reassured friends that she’d climb mountains.

It took Stockwell three months to relearn how to walk using her first prosthetic. After a year of rehabilitation and recovery from more than a dozen surgeries and complications from infections, she skied on one leg with the Vail Veterans and took up swimming, a sport she could manage easily.

Four years after the injury, she became the first Iraq War veteran to be selected for the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing when she made the US swim team. She didn’t medal but was deeply honoured to be chosen to carry the flag during the closing ceremonies.

She plans to start training for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio De Janeiro, when triathlon makes its debut as an event. Indeed, Stockwell is usually on the go _ and on her feet _ from early morning until well into the evening, even though it takes more energy for an amputee to walk and stand.

MCT News Service
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