Warriors turned world class athletes
Anne Stein, MS
Sports & Fitness Journalist/Author
While the Bucktown 5K is typical among hundreds of races held each fall in Chicago, this year’s race was different: a group of amputees called ‘The Blade Runners’ did their first 5K after months of track workouts. Some had never competed before, while others were experienced athletes before losing a limb. Among them: Melissa Stockwell, 29, who swam in three events at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics.
In March 2004, U.S. Army 2nd Lieutenant Melissa Stockwell and her husband Dick, who met in the ROTC program at the University of Colorado, Boulder, shipped out a day apart to serve in Iraq. Three weeks later, Melissa, 24, was injured when her unarmored Humvee was slammed into a guardrail and a house by a roadside bomb in Baghdad.
At the hospital, Dick was the one who broke the news to his wife that she’d lost a leg. She returned to the U.S. and spent the next year undergoing 15 surgeries and rehabbing at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. It’s where Melissa, a former high school gymnast, diver and pole vaulter, discovered she could still do sports, thanks to visits from the Wounded Warrior Project (www.woundedwarriorproject.org). Her rehab included swimming, and Disabled Sports USA (www.dsusa.org) took a group of wounded vets, including Melissa, on a ski trip to Breckenridge.
At Walter Reed, she also decided to become a prosthetist, fitting people like herself who’d lost limbs and providing them with new opportunities in life.
In 2005, the couple moved to Minnesota, where Melissa attended the Prosthetics Practitioner Program at Century College. She also joined a swim team and started training for the ’08 Paralympic games; in Beijing she competed in the 100 and 400 free and 100 butterfly, and was elected by teammates to carry the flag in closing ceremonies.
Now in Chicago, where Dick attends medical school and Melissa is a resident at Scheck and Siress prosthetics, her new sports are running and triathlon. Her boss at Scheck and Siress, David Rotter, started Blade Runners, which he’d like to expand across the U.S.
“When you’re running as an amputee you’re using different techniques and expending energy at a much higher rate,” he explains. “If you’re a below the knee amputee on one side, for example, you expend 15 to 25 percent more energy running than an able-bodied person walking.”
Stockwell, who’s training for a half-Ironman, admits that her first run was just 10 minutes long. “The more you run, the easier it is, but I’d never call it easy,” she said. She currently trains every day, with two double-workouts each week. Her schedule includes three runs (30 to 120 minutes each); two bike rides (90 minutes to three hours) and lots of swimming, up to 4,000 meters per session.
“Melissa’s character is flawless,” says Rotter. “She’s incredibly disciplined, incredibly determined, she never complains and she has a wonderful strength of character that you want to be around.”
Stockwell says her goals are pretty simple: “I want to stay active and see where it brings me.”
For more information on Blade Runners, go to: www.chicagobladerunners.com