Keeping Score: Melissa Stockwell is a good sport

After the Olympic closing ceremonies, there was an exodus of reporters from China, even though the story was far from over. Before the women from the U.S. basketball team had even returned to their WNBA franchises, the Paralympics were underway in Beijing. Close to 4,200 athletes from 148 countries took part in this years games — among them Melissa Stockwell, a swimmer from Colorado Springs, Colo.

The Beijing Paralympic Games end tomorrow, and during their run, Stockwell failed to qualify for the 400-meter freestyle S9, her best event. But I have a feeling she’ll be back in 2012, as making comebacks is Stockwell’s specialty.

In April 2004, Second Lieutenant Stockwell of the U.S. Army found herself leading a convoy of supply vehicles in Iraq. It was her first mission, one she’d excitedly called her mom and dad about the night before. Ten minutes in, her truck hit an IED (Improvised Explosive Device), bounced off a guardrail and careened into a house. Stockwell remembers seeing her pants covered in blood, and then waking up in a hospital, her husband Dick right beside her.

“I think something happened to my leg,” she said.

“It’s gone,” he said.

Fifteen surgeries and 20 blood transfusions later, Stockwell was left with what she calls her “Little Leg,” six inches of bone and muscle where her left leg used to be.

Reporters came from all around to ask Stockwell to describe her feelings about being the first American woman to lose a limb in Iraq.

“There are some reporters,” she said, “that constantly say things like, ‘Tell me about the anger.’ There is no anger.”

In fact, all of the anger that Stockwell could have felt seems to have morphed itself into motivation.

Four months after she was admitted to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, she completed the New York City Marathon on a handbike. One year later, she was training to swim in the Paralympics.

“I was drawn to swimming because I didn’t have to wear a prosthetic to do it,” she said.

Perhaps it is Stockwell’s sense of humor that enabled her to bypass the psychological ramifications that so often accompany injuries like hers. When in training for the Paralympics, she sent out a “save the date” card to her friends and family. On it was a picture of Little Leg wearing a swimming cap, with the date of the Beijing games inscribed at the bottom. When having pedicures with her friends, she jokes with the salon owners about paying half price.

Whatever the reason for her success, Stockwell smashed the U.S. record for the 400m freestyle in this year’s Paralympic qualifier.

Her coach remembers thinking that she’d taken off too fast, that she’d fall apart in the home stretch. But then something happened that still brings tears to his eyes: “She went out and did not die,” he said. “Crushed the field. And set an American record.”

Despite her success in the U.S. time trial, Stockwell didn’t qualify for the finals once she was in Beijing. Of course, that minor setback will never keep a woman of her caliber down.

“In my mind, I have made it to Beijing, and it was my goal in the first place,” she said, fighting back tears. “I was happy to be here and I enjoyed every moment of the race.”

Even more amazing than her athletic accomplishments are Stockwell’s words in an interview with NBC. “I have done more with one leg,” she said, “than I ever would have done with two.”

The interviewer must have looked skeptical, because Stockwell replied, “No, seriously… This sounds cheesy, but I love life. I love it. In the car, the music on, the windows down, I just love it.”

People are famously saying of Paralympians that theirs is a triumph of human spirit. It’s true, of course. Nearly all athletic achievement is a triumph of the human spirit. But victory is also a triumph of human flesh — same as every other Olympian who competed in Beijing this summer, simply one week later.

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