RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Fifteen years ago, Melissa Stockwell was a senior at Colorado, wearing her ROTC uniform as she watched the Sept. 11 attacks unfold on television.
On Sunday, she will put on a different national uniform, Team USA’s, as she competes for gold in the Paralympic triathlon.
“To hear the national anthem, with my hand over my heart on Sept. 11 — there’s not even a way to really describe the feelings that I would have in that moment,” Stockwell said.
In 2004, Stockwell lost her left leg to a roadside bomb while serving in Iraq, becoming the first female American soldier to lose a limb in active combat.
Stockwell usually competes with a “Never Forget 9/11/01” sticker on her American flag-themed bike. The sticker is just above the handlebars, so she can see it while she’s racing.
For Sunday’s race, though, she will have to cover up the sticker to comply with International Paralympic Committee rules. She used some blue electrical tape for the job.
“We have specific rules regarding what brands can be displayed here in competition,” IPC spokesperson Craig Spence said, “so that (covering the sticker) is consistent with the rules.”
Said Stockwell: “I know it’s under there, so I’ll be imagining it.”
Stockwell was a gymnast as a child. Through that, she fell in love with the American flag and the idea of putting on a uniform and representing the U.S. at the Olympic Games.
While that dream never materialized, Stockwell found another way to represent her country by joining the Army through ROTC. Three weeks after she was deployed to Iraq in 2004, the Humvee she was riding in hit the bomb.
In 2008, Stockwell became the first Iraq War veteran to compete in the Paralympics, swimming in three events. She did not qualify for any finals. She carried the flag for Team USA in the closing ceremony.
She won the first of three consecutive paratriathlon world championships in 2010. Then, in 2014, she gave birth to her son, Dallas.
“She basically had to start over,” Stockwell’s husband, Brian Tolsma, said about her training. “She went harder, stronger and faster than I’ve ever seen.”
But now she’s back on a global stage. The Rio Games mark the first time paratriathlon is on the program.
While in Rio, Stockwell will be away from her son for about 2½ weeks. She shared with her husband that she felt depressed about being away from Dallas for so long, but then she remembered all of the soldiers that leave their children for a year at a time.
Stockwell has been awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star Medal. She said she would cherish a Paralympic medal slightly more.
“I want to be known more for not what happened to me,” she said, “but what I did with my injury after it happened.”
Stockwell signs everything “Melissa Stockwell USA,” said Keri Serota, executive director of the nonprofit Dare2tri Paratriathlon Club that Stockwell co-founded to help athletes with physical disabilities and visual impairments train for triathlons.
Tolsma joked that she signs her checks the same way, so people end up referring to her as “Mrs. USA.”
“Anywhere she can put a flag, she’s just going to do it,” Tolsma said. Whether it’s a room in her house, her bike or her prosthetic leg, there is an American flag of some sort.
She does this, she said, because it might spark a conversation with a bystander about the military and thanking those who have served for their sacrifices. Stockwell’s sacrifice did not stop her. Instead, she called it “added motivation” for Sunday’s race, on the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
“Somebody over in Iraq didn’t want me here anymore and they took my leg,” Stockwell said, “but I have the rest of me and here I am competing in Rio at the Paralympic Games, going for the gold.”
Kendra Hansey is a reporter for the Associated Press.