Iraq war amputee a driving force in getting people with disabilities moving
Keri Shindler, Melissa Stockwell and Hailey Danisewicz, left to right, run down Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago to see the Christmas lights on December 3, 2012.
CHICAGO — 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 favorite colors — 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 U.S. 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 organizations 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 U.S. 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 program.
“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.”
Chicago’s Hailey Danisewicz, 21, never thought she’d return to sports after she underwent an above-the-knee amputation at age 14 because of bone cancer. But then she met Stockwell, who helped make and fit her prosthetic leg. “The first time I ran down the hall on her new prosthetic running leg, Melisssa looked at me and said, ‘You’re a natural. You are going to do so great, and big things are going to happen to you,’” Danisewicz recalled.
“Hearing her — of all people — say that was an empowering moment,” said Danisewicz, who thought of those words whenever she felt frustrated. In October, Danisewicz finished behind Stockwell — now her friend, training partner and mentor — in the world paratriathlon championships in New Zealand. “I knew if she believed in me, I should probably believe in myself,” she said.
Stockwell, the youngest of three girls, has always been passionate about sports, the American flag 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.
“She dreams big,” said her sister, Amanda Desnoyers of Atlanta. “She was always extremely positive but even more so now. In the last few years, she’s really come around to be an encourager and a motivator. Some of her best qualities have definitely come out since the accident.”
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 traveling under a bridge in Baghdad in an unarmored 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 apologized to her mom for making her worry. And she reassured friends that she’d climb mountains.
“I remember knowing it would be OK,” she said. “I know that sounds weird, but I knew it would be.”
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 without the prosthetic leg.
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 U.S. swim team. She didn’t medal but was deeply honored to be chosen to carry the American flag during the closing ceremonies.
After the Paralympics, Stockwell began biking and running, enjoying the cross training. In 2009, she completed her first full Olympic-distance triathlon — a 1-mile swim, 26-mile bike ride and 6.2-mile run — in Chicago, winning her division.
Though only two other above-the-knee amputees competed, they were formidable opponents. One was Stockwell’s role model, Sarah Reinertsen, who in 2005 was the first such amputee to complete the Hawaii Ironman.
As a paratriathlete, Stockwell has been unbeatable, winning three consecutive International Triathlon Union Paratriathlon World Championships for her division. She triumphantly crossed the finish line of the New York City Marathon in 2011 on one sound limb and one J-shaped carbon-fiber spring foot, after completing it twice using a hand cycle.
In September, she held her own against able-bodied swimmers, winning her age group in the Big Shoulders 5K open swim in Lake Michigan.
“Melissa knows she has done incredible things, but in her mind there was no real option other than moving on with her life and living it to the best of her ability,” said Dare2Tri Executive Director Keri Shindler, one of Stockwell’s closest friends. “Sometimes people who have overcome a lot let accolades go to their heads, but the attention hasn’t affected Melissa. She’s still a regular down-to-earth person.”
Stockwell isn’t sure how long the Ironman will take — she just knows it will be painful and that she will finish. After that, she plans to start training for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, when triathlon makes its debut as an event.
“The long-distance races are brutal on her residual limb; the skin gets pretty torn up inside the socket,” said her boyfriend, Brian Tolsma, who also works as a prosthetist. “Seeing (sores) on her limb make me cringe, but she never lets it slow her down.”
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.
On a recent day, after two morning workouts — a 4.5-mile run and an hourlong exercise class that included barre work, yoga and core strengthening — she headed to work at Scheck and Siress, an orthotic and prosthetics lab at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
At Scheck and Siress, Stockwell spent most of the afternoon standing, crouching and nimbly moving around to help fit 45-year-old Sue Tinucci with a new leg. Tinucci, of Glendale Heights, Ill., has used a prosthetic leg since losing her real one to cancer at age 10. Inspired by Stockwell, she now wants to try running.
“Melissa is not only an amputee but she’s doing all kinds of exciting things,” Tinnuci said during her appointment. “It’s always a challenge to explain to someone how you’re feeling,” she said. “But Melissa knows where I’m coming from.”
Stockwell has advised Tinnuci on everything from how to wear flip-flops to which antiperspirant to use to keep the limb from slipping out of the socket, which often gets sweaty. She encouraged Tinnuci to decorate her new leg with her favorite fabric design or T-shirt. “Everyone one is going to look anyway,” she told her. “It might as well be a cool color.”
The socket of Stockwell’s own kneeless running leg is red and blue with white stars; it draws stares wherever she goes. When Stockwell, Danisewicz and Shindler recently ran down Michigan Avenue at 6 a.m. to look at Christmas lights, nearly everyone they passed did a double take, surprised by the sight of the mechanical legs swinging out to the side.
Stockwell doesn’t like to talk while she’s running. But if she’s out in public and in the mood, she’ll make eye contact with people who gaze a little too long and say: “It’s OK. You want to know how I lost my leg?”
If she’s in a hurry, she simply looks away. “Kids always want to know, and parents usually try to hush them, almost like they’re embarrassed,” she said. “But the best response a parent could give is: ‘Yes, isn’t that cool? Look what she can do.’”