In 2002, Melissa graduated from the University of Colorado and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Army. Two year later she deployed with the 1st Cavalry Division to Baghdad, Iraq. On April 13, 2004, she was on a routine convoy when her HUMVEE was hit by a roadside bomb. The blast resulted in the amputation of her left leg above the knee and she became the first female to ever lose a limb in active combat.
After a year of rehab at Walter Reed Army Medical Center she was medically retired with a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. She quickly adapted into a life of sports and went on to swim in the 2008 Beijing Paralympics before turning to the sport of triathlon in 2009.
She is a 3x Paratriathlon World Champion and a recent bronze medalist from the 2016 Rio Paralympics. Melissa currently travels the nation for her career as a motivational speaker and runs a prosthetics company with her husband in Colorado Springs.
Melissa is a proud above the knee amputee, a proud American and proudly lives a life of sport. She feels she has done more in her life with one leg than she ever would have done with two. Melissa is currently training with hopes of her third Paralympic Games in Tokyo 2020.
In this podcast, Melissa and Cindra talk:
- The power of choice
- Why staying in the present moment is key to success in life and sport
- How passion and pressure connect
- How to keep going when the world feels upside down
Melissa: Thanks for having me. Happy to be here.
Cindra: Colorado Springs. I know you’re joining us there today. It sounds incredible
Melissa: Yes, it’s a beautiful day out nice. Yes.
Cindra: And a great place to train as well.
Melissa: Great place to train.
Cindra: So to get us started. Tell us a little bit about your passion and what you do right now?
Melissa: So I am currently para-triathlete in the sport of triathlon. So am I missing my left leg above the knee and I swim bike and run a lot and the goal is to Tokyo 2021 Paralympic Games, which would be my third Paralympic Games. So I train, the training is really the focus of my days but I do have a business and Colorado Springs. I’m with my husband Brian and we fit other amputees with artificial limbs and I’m also a mother of two young children, and I do a lot of speaking. Lately it’s been more virtual speaking, but yeah the days are busy, but they’re good.
Cindra: Yeah, that’s wonderful. So, so many things that you have to balance and we’ll talk a bit about that today and how you handle everything with your own mindset, but just kind of briefly tell us about your decision to join the military and how what that decision was like?
Melissa: Pretty short and sweet and you know I love our country and I realized at a young age, how lucky we were to live in the country that we do, I wanted to get back and decided that I wanted to wear the uniform and serve our country.
Cindra: Yeah, and I know you lost your limb in the Iraq war. So tell us about just. Well, first maybe, to start off, you know, what did you learn about mindset in terms of before you even, you know, maybe when you were starting in the military, but I’m just thinking there’s a lot of people in my field who work in the military. So I’m curious. Like, what did you learn even before you went to war about mindset?
Melissa: Um, you know, I honestly would never really would have thought about it in that way. I think in the military, though, like you learn, you learn so much about like teamwork about camaraderie about putting a mission above yourself. You learn you know, going over being deployed. I mean, you, you kind of have to trust in your training. You have to trust in the fact that you join the military to serve your country and that’s what you’re going to go do so you kind of just have to kind of trust everything that’s led up to that moment.
Cindra: Yeah, absolutely. And I’m thinking also like so much resiliency skills that you need when things don’t go perfectly.
Melissa: Sure, yeah. I mean, I feel like you go over your deployed over, you know, to a foreign country and, you know, you always expect things to go so well, you prepare
Melissa: For that, that you never really think anything else will happen. You always think something bad would happen to somebody else.
Cindra: Yeah, so give us a sense of, you know, I know you kind of woke up in a Baghdad ER and you were missing your legs so tell us about that experience and what that was like for you in terms of just coping with that?
Melissa: So yeah, it was 24 years old, um, you know, and my my vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb and woke up in the value of emergency room and was told by the surgeon that I no longer had my leg. And you know, I think, you know, pretty early on I was pretty ,I’ve always been a very positive person and it sounds kind of cheesy to say that from the start, like I knew I was going to be okay. But that that’s kind of the reality of it. I know that when I was when I was told that my leg was no longer there. You know, I was obviously under a lot of medication, a lot of pain medication, but I remember being thankful It was you know myself not another one of my soldiers. I just kind of knowing that I would be able to get through it.
Cindra: Yeah, so you have this hope this belief, you didn’t go to the worst case scenario. I’m also hearing is like this, gratitude to be alive.
Melissa: Yes, definitely.
Cindra: Yeah. So what was your journey like back coming home and in terms of, you can no longer serve in that way in that capacity. Right. So tell us about your journey just recovering?
Melissa: So I did my I did all my recovery actually at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which at the time was where all the wounded soldiers went from Iraq and Afghanistan and you know it was there, you know, I looked around, I saw other soldiers missing to limbs, they had lost her eyesight traumatic brain injuries and really consider myself one of the lucky ones, I’ve only lost one leg to, you know, still have my life, you know, as you mentioned, just being very grateful. So really put things in perspective and kind of made a promise, then to live my life for those who have given an ultimate sacrifice to not let losing a black stop me from doing really anything that I wanted to do.
Cindra: Yeah, I think just you saying that inspires me and inspires those people who are listening because you know, no matter what you might be going through, I do think it’s helpful sometimes to think about what other people might be struggling with, and be grateful, even though that you might be struggling as well. But there’s always kind of a lens to look through that you can still see the positive and be grateful for what you have.
Melissa: Definitely. And I think, you know, I think it’s okay to not be okay. I think that term is very apparent, and that’s with anything in life really any after losing a limb or after just, you know, you don’t have it, you’re having a bad day. I mean, it’s okay to not be okay but at the same time, I think it’s, it’s for some it’s easier than others, but just to put things in perspective that a lot of people would love to have our bad days. And then, you know, just to kind of look around and kind of think about how good we really have things in our own lives.
Cindra: I know that you’re a keynote speaker. So can you give us a sense of what are some of the messages that you might deliver in that medium and I’m just going to kind of in that medium. I’m just kind of thinking about, obviously you share your story. But I’m curious on how you might help the audience as you’re speaking?
Melissa: So I do speak a lot. I’m the various corporations and groups. And I would say the main the main message is that of power of choice. So I feel like choices are so important in all of our lives and any obstacles that come our way we have the power and really how we choose to deal with them and to overcome them, and in my own life. I mean after losing a leg. I had, I had a major decision, was I going to, you know, take the downhill road. The poor me never really accept the loss of my leg or was I going to you know make a conscious decision to choose to accept the loss of my leg, move on and see what I can do with it. And that choice is really what propelled the start of the rest of this incredible life that I now live. So my hope was when I speak to groups that I finish up tell my story. They kind of think about their own lives, the choices that they’ve made and how they can then choose to make their life what they want it to be.
Cindra: Yeah, inspiring message. And I also think about. There’s so much truth to that, that sometimes we make choices and we don’t really think about them twice or are really struggling to say, okay, how can I make a conscious choice right now, regardless of, you know, how difficult my situation is right, yeah? Do you think when you think about the moment that you made a conscious choice. Can you give us a sense of when that moment was and what the choice was that you made?
Melissa: Yeah, I mentioned that a little bit, but just at Walter Reed. I mean, just being around those other soldiers, I think. I mean, very early on I just really made. I don’t really have a specific day or I don’t, I can’t remember the specific moment, but I can very early on I just, you know, made that conscious decision to, you know, look around saw others who had a much worse off than I did and made that decision to accept it and to move on.
Cindra: Yeah. So now as an athlete who’s gone to the Olympic Games. Give us a sense of what. Well, first of all, what is that like to train. I know you went into swimming events. Right?
Cindra: I get that right okay, in swimming and now working to go to Tokyo 2021, so give us give us a sense of what it’s like to just to train?
Melissa: I mean, it’s a very much a part time job. I mean 20 hours a week is about what I spend on swimming, biking running you know maintenance of my body. So I can kind of get up and do it again the next day. So, I mean, I love it and I am so fortunate that I get to wake up and do what I do, but yeah, I mean I spent hours, you know, on my bike in the pool, um, you know, running all with this goal of trying to get to Tokyo and hopefully be on that podium.
Cindra: What was it like during the last Olympics. I know you got third in the track. So what was that like, it was the inaugural event. But give us a sense of what that was like to stand on that podium?
Melissa: Amazing, it will it will go down as one of the greatest moments of my life just being on the podium on it was September 11, 2016 and wearing the USA uniform. It was a USA sweep, we got to see three American flags go up as we heard the national anthem and you know, just thinking about everyone that helped get me there to that moment, and it was I mean, it was incredible. I think it’ll be it’ll be tough to beat. But the goal to Tokyo will be to be that moment.
Cindra: So what do you do now to train your mind in terms of, you know, helping you be able to be the best that you can be in that moment and Tokyo happens?
Melissa: You know, I’ll tell you that that is probably, it’s so we have a sports psychologist, that that we have access to, but personally like life is very busy. So that’s honestly probably one of the first things that that typically goes off of the calendar, not because I wanted to just because there’s always so much going on so when I’m unable to talk with her. I had to find kind of my own, my own sense on how I’m able to kind of train my mind and I feel like I do that by taking sometimes just, I mean, two to three minutes a day if that’s all I have just like sit down in a quiet space. I clear my mind. I do some just some like deep breathing where I’m completely present in what I’m doing. So instead of trying to think about everything else that’s going on around me, which was so easy to do, but just trying to be very present in that particular moment and the hope is that, and it has worked is that it kind of carries over into my athletics. So when I’m swimming in my race. I’m not thinking about everything else that I’m about to go. Do you know what happened that morning, I am completely present in that swim, you know, and trying to be as fast as I can be. And then I get on the bike and on the wrong. So really kind of training my mind to be in that moment and I mean there’s been proven success behind it working. So even just a few minutes every day to try to do that for myself. And just to be present. And just to focus on what’s going on right now.
Cindra: Yeah, I think that’s a powerful message for any athlete or businessperson who’s listening. It’s like, well, your best can only happen in the present moment, and that you can turn it right? So I appreciate what you’re saying is, like, okay, if I train it every day. Then when I when I am competing, it’s going to be easier for me to stay in the present.
Melissa: Definitely, it’s just like you’re training your body for athletic to train your mind for sure.
Cindra: Yeah, um, give us a sense of when you are competing in travel on. What do you guys think I’m a runner myself. I’m a marathoner, but I don’t do any triathlons, my husband does. Um, but, you know, it just such an endurance event where you have to keep going. Give us a sense of like what do you use to keep pushing and to keep going feel like being able to push through that discomfort, you know that you’re really feeling if you’re really competing your hardest?
Melissa: Yeah, it’s hard. I mean, I think the true athlete keeps going when it when it’s hard. So, and you have to find ways that that keep you going. And for some it’s, you know, a mantra that they may have, I mean, for me personally, it’s just, um, you know, a mantra: I can do this, I can do this. And also, I mean, I’m so inspired by so many things. So I think about the things that inspire me. And to me, it’s you know, soldiers who have given that ultimate sacrifice. It’s wanted to prove to myself that I can still do what I want to do and be the best athlete out there. So I’ve taken what inspires me. And I just use it to push myself to be as fast as I can.
Cindra: I think about competing on a big stage, you know, give us a sense of what do you do to not let the pressure get to you?
Melissa: I mean, you know, some pressures good pressure, I think if we didn’t feel pressure, then we wouldn’t be passionate about what we do. So yeah, I think, but it’s tough trying to channel that pressure and I mean it’s tough. I mean it’s, you know, you get up that starting line and you have to at that at that moment. You just have to trust your training you have trust that you’re going to go out there and give it your best because, I mean, there’s really nothing else you can do. I mean, you can’t think back and say, Oh, I should have trained harder for this moment, because that is it. So, I think it’s in the days and weeks leading into a race that are the most crucial I say the days, the weeks, the months and the years right? So I think, you know, I think, a little progress kind of adds up to that perfection. So getting that starting line and just knowing that you gave it your best and they’re going to go and just being comfortable with the fact that your best is good enough.
Cindra: Yeah. Well, what I’m hearing in your response also is like to be confident in your training that like by putting in the hours. Hours a week.
Melissa: Yeah I mean, you know, you have to be confident, you get to that starting line and just kind of look around and you think I can beat these people, and I’m going to do everything I can to try to beat them and you just kind of go for it. I mean, that’s really all you can do.
Cindra: So I know the Olympics and the Paralympic Games were supposed to happen like literally right now. So how are you adjusting to that change. And I’m just also thinking Melissa are so many people who are listening who are going through changes in their own life, maybe some things that were supposed to happen that haven’t you know just changes in the sports season in general. So give us a sense of like how have you been dealing with all of the different changes within sport?
Melissa: Sure. Um, so yeah, I mean, I think, as most of us know the Olympics and Paralympics were postponed a year and I don’t think it was a huge surprise any of us, we kind of knew was a possibility. And I mean, it happened, and obviously health always comes first. So I think it was very much the right decision. Um, you know, I think, again, always trying to be positive and to put a positive outlook on things, but it, you know I like to think that it’s a whole other year for me to get even faster. It’s another year for my kids to grow up, to get another year older under realize why mommy swim, bikes and runs all the time. But there is so much change going on around us now. And I think what I’ve learned. I’ve obviously had dealt a lot with change after losing my leg but It’s going to help put things in perspective right now. I mean, we had this pandemic right that we never expected that we would have to live through and I think it’s so important that we go about our days as best as we can. We can’t compare our days to anyone else. We can’t judge our own days, based on what anyone else is doing. So you live the life, the best you can. I mean, if you’re a parent working full time from home when you have young kids, I mean, I’ve talked to so many of my friends that are struggling because they do that then they feel bad, you know, their kids end up in front of the screens more than they want to, but personally, I think, if that’s what you have to do you do it. I think right now you just do what you have to do. You can’t feel bad about the things that you do to make your days as best as you can and I think at night, you know you lay down and instead of thinking about all the negative parts of your day to try to, you know, to try to think about the positive parts of the day and the positive things that happened and hope that positivity can hopefully somehow override those, the negative parts of the world that we’re all seeing so much.
Cindra: Absolutely and it’s easy. I think Melissa to like be focusing on all the things that are going wrong or the things that are missing. But what I hear you say is, can you can you look back at your day and say, Hey, here’s the three things that went well today. Even with all these things I can’t control.
Melissa: Definitely, yeah. You can’t. I mean, we can’t control everything right so much out of our control. So I think focusing on what we can control as is key.
Cindra: When you think about mindset and just, you know, making sure this is helping you compete at your best. Instead of hurting you. What do you see that the best of the best do? You know I’m thinking about your around a lot of great athletes, incredible athletes.
Maybe you train with them, you know, obviously see them when you compete. So what do you think separates the best of the best room until standpoint?
Melissa: I think it’s confidence. I think it’s being confident in training. I think it’s not letting using the stress and the pressure towards good instead of letting it on gets you in a negative way, they find a way to kind of channeling it into energy that maybe they didn’t have before. And just to kind of run with it they thrive. I think the best athletes thrive under pressure.
Cindra: Yeah. Yeah. And I think what you said earlier, I wrote down. It’s like, well, if we wouldn’t feel pressure, we wouldn’t be passionate about what we’re doing right and I think you’re spot on. It’s like, well, I feel pressure on things that I really want to do well at right that are things
that I do love that I’m choosing to do and that I’m typically passionate about it because I really want to do well. So just using that to frame the pressure, I think, is powerful.
Melissa: Yeah, definitely.
Cindra: So I’m thinking about the people who are listening and I know you’re balancing your training with your own company with, you know, being a mom. How do you balance it all?
Melissa: I have an incredible team. I mean, my, my husband, number one, you know, I mean, my dreams kind of become his dreams and he wants Tokyo 2021 to happen as much as I do. So, you know, I had this incredible support system on, you know, my kids are at ages, where they’re in daycare or in kindergarten. So I have these hours during the day to train, help with the company to do speaking, whatever it may be. So I think it’s having a good team, surrounding yourself with people that you know, have the same goals as you do. And also, you know, filling your days with the things that make you happy. You know, we only have so much time in our days. So making sure that we make the most of it.
Cindra: So what is your journey going to be like to Tokyo 2021 like, obviously, you got to keep training your heart out, but what other things do you, what are your kind of milestones that you’re working towards to make sure that that that you give yourself the best chance of success there?
Melissa: I mean the training. Now it’s hard now because all the races this year have been canceled. So you know, kind of training towards some unknown race, next year, next March so trying to keep up with the training just, you know, there are days where you wake up and you’re like, do I really have to go jump in the pool right now is that really going to matter in a year, but the answer is it is going to and what we do now will affect our outcome, then so continuing to train. I mean, a lot of trials next March so, you know, first I have to make the team. So trying to do that too. But along the way, obviously trying to be the best mother, the best wife I can be trying to help our new business flourish and you know help with marketing and patients and that and everything that comes with that. So I feel like there’s a lot of, you know, there’s. Every day brings us new set of challenges, but kind of ready to tackle them and see where they bring me.
Cindra: I think one of the things that I wrote down, I think, is really powerful is like just remembering that you’re training towards that you’re this unnamed thing right and how that can make you lose motivation or question why you’re doing it, but you still get up because you know it’s going to impact the outcome. For people right now who maybe are struggling with like motivation or sticking with something if it’s training as an athlete. I think just remembering that what you do now will help you be able to perform the way that you want to.
Melissa: It will and I’ll say, that’s why I trained with a team, there’s five of us and we have a coach and we train you know, multiple times a week together and just having that team that, that accountability having a coach there. That is, I mean, that’s huge. I mean, if I had to do all
my own, it would be even harder. So just having that team for accountability having that coach is huge.
Cindra: When you think about advice that you might give to other people kind of make your similar boat. Maybe they’re training, but working and they have kids, right, and they’re trying to balance it all. Do you have any advice or suggestions that you think’s really helped you?
Melissa: Um, I think the suggestions, is you have to sometimes you have to let go the small stuff so I mean for example I’m very much I like things clean and organized. But if I need to attend to my kids, I want to go play a game with my kids, instead of do the dishes in the sink. What’s what when I think about what’s most important to me. It’s going to play with my kids right so it’s kind of choosing what’s, what do I want to spend my time doing and If the dishes aren’t done at the end of the night is at the end of the world? No. What means even more are the hours that I spent that that time with my children so I think just kind of finding. What’s the most important to you and if you have to let some other things go. That’s just part of trying to do everything that you want to do. So it’s okay to let some other things go just to figure out just to do the things that make you happy.
Cindra: Well, Melissa. I’m so glad I’m so grateful that you took the time to talk with us today before we kind of wrap it up. Tell us where people can learn more about you hire you to speak. I know you have an awesome TED talk. Tell us about where we can find you?
Melissa: Yep. So, um, so I have a website just Melissastockwell.com and then obviously social media so MStockwell01 is Instagram and Twitter and that’s a great place to kind of follow along on the path to Tokyo and then as far as speaking, I’m on my website, there’s a contact and that that email comments directly to me and I would pass you on to my agent and hopefully it can work.
Cindra: Perfect. Well here are three things that you said today, I’m going to wrap up with these three things. A good summary. First, before I guess, Melissa is just that we do each make, we can make a conscious choice right when we’re in the middle of a difficulty we can make a choice to see the possibilities. So, I think that’s powerful what you said about being in the present moment and training yourself to be in the present and how just doing that your normal day to day helps you compete in the present. And you said that if we don’t feel pressure, It’s probably not something that we’re passionate about right or something about connecting pressure to passion. I thought that was really awesome and that when kind of your unmotivated you might think to yourself, your inner voice might say, Well, you know, I’m fine. If I don’t need to train today but you kind of quiet that inner voice and to say it will make a difference and get me on my way to Tokyo. So thank you so much for joining us. I’m grateful that you had a few minutes in your busy schedule to take time to inspire us.
Melissa: Awesome. Well, thank you for having me on. I appreciate it.
Cindra: Thank you. Thanks.