When looking for a positive role model, it’s hard to top Melissa Stockwell. The first female soldier to lose a limb in the Iraq War when her convoy was struck by a roadside bomb, Stockwell has found a second inspiring life in Paralympic sport, first as a swimmer at the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing and later as a gold medal-winning paratriathlete at three consecutive ITU Paratriathlete World Championships, in Budapest, Beijing and Auckland.
The Purple Heart honoree is currently training to compete in the first ever paratriathlon event at this summer’s Paralympics in Rio while also serving as a coach and co-founder of Dare2Tri, the Chicago-based triathlon club specifically for athletes with disability.
As part of Girls Sports Month, USA TODAY High School Sports spoke to Stockwell about her journey in sports, her ability to inspire athletes of all ages and the need for more access for all those marginalized in sports.
USAT (Q): Why are sports so important for girls today? What do they mean for you?
MELISSA STOCKWELL (A): Sports for me is my way of life. It’s not just an amputee finding sports gave me my life back, but for women in general and young girls it adds self-confidence and self-worth. It shows anyone that hard work can pay off. It shows that if you give something a shot you can achieve it. It adds so much depth to a girls life.
Q: When did you know that you wanted to make sports your life work? What inspired that commitment?
A: I lost my leg in 2004 and I’d always been an athlete growing up. I dreamt of the Olympics when I was younger, so when I learned about the paralympic Games I had a second chance. I wasn’t going to let losing a leg stop me from doing something I was going to do. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to be a paralympian and represent the U.S. I made it a goal early on, and like the Olympics, I’ve had to dedicate so much time and training it’s taken over my life. I’m a proud paralympian and hopefully will represent my county again this summer in Rio.
Q: What makes a great leader in sports? Are they born or made?
A: I think it’s a combination of both. You have to have that internal drive; not everyone will wake up and realize they want to be an Olympian or paralympian. I think you’re born with part of that, though it can be developed as that. Maybe someone grows up wanting to be a paralympian and is inspired to get that drive. I think a leader in sport is someone who doesn’t let others get to them. You do what’s best for you and people naturally follow. You have confidence in yourself and become a natural leader at that point.
Q: Are there specific challenges in girls sports, whether from team dynamics or other issues?
A: I haven’t been involved in team sports beyond Team USA. I think naturally there is more drama when it comes to girls, because that’s who we are. I have to constantly remove myself from the drama to keep myself from becoming part of it. But as a leader of a team you have to push girls to prove that they are athletes first, and a female second. That’s what I want. If you have the right leadership there it will push girls to be what they can be.
Q: What was your career in youth sports like?
A: I was a big gymnast when I was growing up. I thought I was an Olympic hopeful at one point, though who knows if that was true. I knew the Olympics was where I wanted to be. Before I dedicated everything to gymnastics I swam and played soccer, and I always considered myself an athlete.
Q: What advice do you have for girls who want to be involved in a particular sport but may not have access to it?
A: I think there are resources out there that are not tapped into. Finding a sport or an athlete that has the resources for young girls to be a part of, that’s important. That may not be true in every small town in America, but in a 100-mile radius that might be possible. Reaching out to youth/girls clubs may lead to new possibilities, because there are a lot of untapped resources available.
I wouldn’t be here if I did this on all my own. I’ve been very fortunate to surround myself with people who want me to be involved in sports, have seen how it’s changed my life and want me to continue. Athletics is a very big part of my life. If these girls hopefully have parents who realize the importance that sport has in their daughter’s life, they’ll really support them in their whole journey. I’ve been inspired by so many people along the way. After I lost my leg I searched out other female amputees and sought them out and connected with them. If I can be any inspiration to a young girl trying to find her way in life through sports, that’s great.