Iraq Amputee Becomes Paralympics Athlete

Melissa Stockwell is the first Iraq vet to qualify for the Paralympics.

ByABC News

April 18, 2008— -- When Melissa Stockwell heard she had broken an American record a few weeks ago in the 400-meter freestyle event, it didn't seem real.

"I looked up at the clock, and I couldn't believe it was my time," she told ABC's Bob Woodruff. "To hear my name and the American record in the same sentence was really cool."

Stockwell's achievement qualified her to compete on the U.S. team at the Paralympics in Beijing this summer and represents a personal milestone -- not only did she shave 17 seconds off her time to qualify, her feat signifies just how far she's come in the last four years.

In the spring of 2004, just three weeks into her deployment, the Army 1st Lieutenant lost her leg when her Humvee was hit by a roadside bomb on the streets of Baghdad.

"I was sitting behind the driver. We had no doors or anything on our Humvee," she remembers of the attack. "We went under an underpass and the IED went off, and someone yelled, 'IED, IED, we just hit an IED.'"

It was not until she woke up in a Baghdad hospital that Stockwell realized her leg was gone. It was her husband, also deployed in Iraq, who broke the news to her; he had been notified of her injury by his Army commander and rushed to meet her at the hopsital. "When I woke up, the first person I saw was him," she said.

Stockwell was the first female amputee of the Iraq War and has worked hard to recover as much mobility as possible through extensive physical therapy at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Despite the challenges of adjusting to life with one leg, she has taken on one physical challenge after another, proving again and again that she can still be a formidable athlete.

Just two months after her injury, Stockwell was back on the slopes. "I learned how to ski on one leg, and it was the first athletic anything I had done since I was hurt," she said. "Before I knew it, I was flying down the mountain and I was loving it. It felt like I could do anything. That is when the whole spirit of life came back into me. If I can ski, I can do anything!"

Since her injury, Melissa has conquered the slopes of Colorado, the New York City Marathon and a triathlon in San Diego. She still hopes to try her hand at rock climbing, but for now, her sights are set on Beijing.

Her coach, Jimmy Flowers, sees her latest venture as a continued expression of her commitment to serve. "She's just trying to represent her country in a different uniform," he said. "[She's] serving her country, just doing it in a different way."

Surprisingly, Stockwell was never a competitive swimmer. She was a gymnast, rower, diver and skier, but up until recently, swimming was just for fun.

"I swam up until I was 8 or 9, but I was a big gymnast and I chose that over swimming," she said. "My dream was to be in the Olympics in Atlanta in 1996. That, obviously, did not happen."

Though she never got the chance to go to the Olympics for gymnastics, this summer will be Stockwell's time to shine, and she hopes to bring back a medal for her country.

"It was such a dream of mine, such a passion, that I knew that, that is what I wanted," she said of qualifying for the team. "I thought, 'This is the moment,' and I gave it all I had, and it went a lot better than I expected it to."

And she does not waste time with regrets or dwelling on the past.

"When I signed up, I knew I was taking a chance," she said. "I'm proud of how I lost my leg. I was proud to wear the uniform. I still am."

Stockwell hopes that her efforts will motivate other disabled veterans. "I've done more with one leg than I ever did with two," she said. "I have bigger dreams than I ever would have had with two legs. I don't know if things are meant to happen, but I'm very happy."

The Paralympic Games begin Sept. 6.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events