Melissa Stockwell — daughter of The Cliffs Valley members Dave and Marlene Hoffman — inspires with every step she takes.
You would think she had been born on the Fourth of July. “All her growing up years, she had a red, white, and blue bedroom,” says Marlene Hoffman about her daughter, Melissa Stockwell. Hers was an innate and unabiding patriotism, one that left Hoffman in awe. “At age six, Melissa started gymnastics. She was competing, winning medals, and you could just see her pride to stand there with her hand on her chest, looking at the flag. I don’t know where that incredible respect for our flag and our country came from.” She continues, “In middle school, a recruiter from the Army came and talked to all the kids, and Melissa brought home three or four stickers: Go Army and the Uncle Sam one, We Want You, with his finger pointing out. She wanted those on the bumper on our car and we said, ‘No, but you can put them in your bedroom.’”
Dave and Marlene Hoffman — members at The Cliffs Valley — watched the youngest of their three daughters follow her patriotic calling when she was commissioned as an officer into the United States Army. They also watched as Stockwell’s life changed dramatically — nearly tragically — on April 13, 2004. As Stockwell has described it, she woke up with two legs and went to sleep with one. Stockwell was deployed in Iraq as a first lieutenant when her Humvee was hit by a roadside bomb in Baghdad. She was 24 years old, and in that moment, became the first female soldier to lose a limb in combat.
It was a dubious distinction at the time, especially for someone so young and just starting her career. But for this high-achieving veteran, athlete, wife, and mother, it was the first of many significant moments brought about by the life-altering loss of her left leg.
From that point on, Stockwell turned her spirit and determination toward making the most of her life — if only because she still had hers. “I feel very lucky to have my life because a lot of people gave that ultimate sacrifice,” she says. “I think a lot about how I want to run or be out there doing the things I want to do, just because I can, and a lot of people can’t. I always tell people just try to find whatever inspires you and use it.”
For her, inspiration also comes from her husband of four years, Brian, their nearly five-year-old son, Dallas Patrick, and daughter, Millie Lynn, who is almost two. The family lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado, so that Stockwell can train at the U.S. Olympic Training Center. That’s where you’ll find her every day from 7:30 am until 4:30 pm, training to reach her goal of representing the United States in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.
Stockwell, who was awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart, is not just a war hero. She’s a paratriathlete, competing around the globe in biking, swimming, and running. During her recovery at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in 2004, she learned of the Paralympic Games and earned a spot in the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games for swimming. That laid the groundwork for what would, eight years later, become one of the greatest moments of her life. In Rio, at the 2016 Paralympic Games, she won the bronze medal in the women’s paratriathlon. For her, it felt like “personal gold.”
“The race was on September 11, with all of the meaning behind that. I’m wearing the USA uniform and my family and friends are there. And it was a USA sweep, so when my teammates got the silver and gold — and not one, but three American flags go up, and the national anthem plays — I mean, it was one of the greatest moments ever. I was out of my mind. It was the most incredible moment,” Stockwell recalls.
She has made her life full of those now: incredible moments. The extensive list of her awards and achievements includes being a three-time paratriathlon world champion; co-founding Dare2Tri, a paratriathlon club serving youth and adults with physical disabilities; using her voice to share her story and lift up others as a motivational speaker for high-performance corporations; and appearing as part of veterans campaigns in commercials from Chobani Greek Yogurt and Modelo beer.
Stockwell also turns 40 next year and is competing against much younger people who might be able to hit the snooze button — a luxury that doesn’t go along with being the mother of young children. She’s inspiring to say the very least, but this trifecta of grit, perseverance, and positivity is overmatched by one thing: love for her children and family.
“My favorite moments are Saturday and Sunday mornings when we wake up and make pancakes,” says Stockwell. “We play on the floor all the time. We do puzzles, go to the park, take out the bike. Those little moments are my favorite moments. Just sitting on the floor rolling a ball back and forth with my 1½ year old is such happiness.”
She is many things to many people, but what inspires her husband, Brian, most is the view he sees through the window that her fans, supporters, and followers can’t. “You would think it would be her work ethic and determination,” he says, “but honestly, it is her patience with our children. She can come home from a week of workouts and be visibly tired, but always has time for the kids. She could easily throw on the TV and get some rest, but she doesn’t. She stays engaged with them, brings them to the park, plays out in the yard. Her energy is endless when it comes to our kids.”
Every year in April, Stockwell’s family and friends gather to celebrate the birthday of her “Little Leg,” complete with cake, beer toasts, banners, and plenty of red, white, and blue. This year, Stockwell even wore a t-shirt emblazoned with the date April 13, 2004, followed by “I Found the IED” — a gallows-humor nod to herself that only someone seemingly Teflon-coated from negativity would wear.
“We wouldn’t have made it and still had our heads screwed on right if she wasn’t as positive as she was,” says Hoffman, who Stockwell makes clear is one of her biggest cheerleaders. “I give her an immense amount of credit for how she impacted our life and our view of life because she was so positive.”
Stockwell has bad days, and she’s the first to admit it. “Just ask my husband,” she says. But from faraway Iraq — a place that called to a young patriot clad in Army fatigues and fortified with unflagging love of country — to the world stage where Stockwell competes against other athletes, she can still hear the noise. Words like “no” and “cannot” are still Kryptonite to even the most superhuman of heroes. So every time Stockwell takes a step, she remembers what she can still do. And she remembers that all the steps she takes are for more than herself. They’re also for her family, her friends, and the legions that are watching and taking inspiration from her.
This story was featured in Cliffs Living magazine. To read more stories like this one and learn more about The Cliffs, subscribe here.