Wounded Vet Again Tackles Basic Training
Friday, March 21, 2008
COLORADO SPRINGS -- Melissa Stockwell bobbed in the water at one end of the pool at the U.S. Olympic Training Center, peering through swimming goggles at her coach, Jimmy Flowers, on the pool deck. The day's first training session was under way, and Flowers called for a kicking drill.
He tossed Stockwell a training fin and she slipped it underwater, pulling it on her right foot. She did not need a second.
Nearly four years ago, most of Stockwell's left leg was blown off by a roadside bomb in Baghdad. The injury to the Army first lieutenant required 15 operations and nine months of treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where Stockwell swam laps as part of her rehabilitation and learned that her Purple Heart and bronze star did not have to be the only medals she claimed while serving her country.
In the hospital's physical therapy center just months after the explosion, she encountered John Register, a U.S. Olympic Committee official and himself an amputee. Register pitched the opportunities within the Paralympic movement and this summer's Paralympic Games, a global competition for athletes with disabilities that will take place immediately after the Olympic Games in Beijing.
"As soon as I heard about it, I knew I was going to do it," Stockwell said.
Stockwell, 27, is one of more than a dozen disabled veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- seven of whom now are living and training full time at USOC training facilities -- hoping to qualify for the U.S. Paralympic squad. Founded after World War II as part of a rehabilitation program for injured veterans, the Paralympics over time came to be populated predominantly by athletes who were born with disabilities or disabled much of their lives. But more than 31,000 service members have been injured in combat in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, invigorating what has proved to be an inextricable relationship.
"It's really the Paralympic movement going back to its roots," said Register, who has visited Walter Reed more than a dozen times since the start of the Iraq war. "Some of these individuals, they're going to make the team."
USOC Paralympic Chief Charlie Huebner estimates that between four and 10 disabled veterans, nearly all of whom were introduced to the Paralympics during one of Register's visits to military hospitals or at subsequent invitational camps, will qualify for the 240-person U.S. Paralympic team this summer. Huebner said war veterans eventually could make up 10 to 15 percent of the team, but probably not until the 2012 Summer Games in London.
Only one U.S. war veteran competed in the Paralympics in Athens four years ago.
Stockwell sensed the size of her mission to make the U.S. team from the start. It took her months to get used to her new body, making her way through Walter Reed's corridors at first by wheelchair, then on crutches and finally with the aid of her new prosthetic leg. Now she is training furiously in a sport in which many top athletes have competed for years or even decades.
In January, Stockwell packed her bags and moved to the Olympic Training Center here to prepare for the U.S. Paralympic Swimming Trials April 3-5 in Minneapolis, leaving behind her husband, who is attending medical school in Chicago.
She plans to compete in the 50-, 100- and 400-meter freestyle and the 100 butterfly.