Army veteran Melissa Stockwell has one strong, healthy leg. The other is a scarred, 6-inch stump that she has proudly nicknamed "Little Leg."
The Bucktown woman 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 on her blog, "I'm going to be an Ironman," 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 its "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 also is 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. military personnel 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 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, Melissa 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, a platoon leader and first lieutenant, had been in Iraq just three weeks when she lost part of her left leg to a roadside bomb on April 13, 2004 — a day she now celebrates as the arrival of Little Leg. 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.