Melissa Stockwell was supposed to be six months into retirement from athletics by now, focused on family and business and (ideally) basking in the glow of a Tokyo gold medal. When the 2020 Games were pushed back by a year due to COVID, she briefly entertained the idea of sticking with Plan A—retiring on schedule, getting on with her life, and giving up her dreams of Paralympic gold. But Stockwell has pushed around and through much bigger obstacles to achieve her goals. So here she is, keeping her mental focus and maintaining the intensity of her training for another year. Our conversation is edited for clarity.
Catch me up on everything that’s happened since June, when you did the the fundraising ride.
There was a race that we did in early December, Challenge Daytona. That was great just to have something to train for. You know, we did the fundraising ride across Colorado in June, and that was really fun. After that, we were still putting in the time every week, continuing to train and trying to keep up that motivation throughout—it’s kinda like you woke up every morning early to go jump in a pool, and you’re not really sure why you’re doing it. I’m trying to keep in the back of the mind that when the time does come, this will pay off.
So just to have that [Daytona] race, to go down there with my teammates, it helped to see where we were with our training. Then the new year passed, and now it seems time is moving very quickly. The Olympic Training Center opened back up, and it’s really great to be back there. So we’re just moving forward and keeping our fingers crossed that we’re in Tokyo this August, and it all happens.
When the Olympic Training Center was closed down, did you have access to a pool? I would assume that’s your most difficult problem to solve in terms of being able to train.
A few pools in Colorado Springs were still open, so I think the majority of us were able to swim. Maybe not as much as we wanted, but we were able to get in the pool at least three or four times a week. We probably all increased our swim-focused strength training in the studio gyms that we all have at home, because we weren’t able to get in the pool as much as we wanted.
I’ve been able to bike on the trainer all winter. And it’s been pretty nice in Colorado, so I can run outside. So I was really able to get in all the training that I needed to.
How does being away from the Training Center and being separated from your teammates impact your training and your motivation?
I can’t say enough about being part of the team. That’s why my family and I moved to Colorado Springs, to have that team training environment. You take that away, and it’s kind of like you’re used to seeing your teammates for hours upon hours every day, and suddenly you you have no contact.
Through all that kind of quarantine time, we occasionally, you know, if we’re on a bike ride, we might up meet each other and ride around together, socially distanced. So we still have contact with each other, but it’s not the same. We’re anxiously awaiting the day that we can all be back together again.
Was there ever a point where you seriously thought, “You know what? Enough of this, I’m just retiring”?
When things were postponed—I mean, it was definitely the right call, but I’m 40 years old, and I was asking myself, “Can I keep going for another year?” My husband and I just opened a business, a prosthetic company. And there was very much a timeline we were operating on: After August 2020, I’m done. I’m not traveling for racing and training. I won’t be gone for weeks at a time. I’m focused more on the business. I’ll be there for my kids. So when it was postponed for another year—you know, I think for someone else a year is nothing, but for others it can feel like an eternity. And I probably fell on the eternity end of the scale.
There also was the question of whether my body can handle it. Because, you know, triathlon is not easy on the body. So there was a fleeting thought of asking, “Do I really wanna do this?”
But in a few minutes, the positive thoughts kicked back in. It’s another year for me to get even faster. It’s another year for my young kids [ages 3 and 5] to understand what Mommy is doing, and another year for them to get old enough to understand why I’m doing it. I want them to know that I have this dream and I stuck with it through all of these difficulties, even with the extra year. You don’t give up when things don’t go as you plan. You just kind of keep pushing.
So literally it was just a matter of minutes where you felt a little shaky.
Yeah. I mean, my husband didn’t think twice about it. We had uprooted our whole family from Chicago to move out here [to Colorado], so he wasn’t gonna let me step aside. He knows how important this is to me. And he was gonna support me all the way.
Aside from the opportunity to get faster, are there other benefits at all to having the extra year of training?
I’ve almost been able to change my mind-set a little bit when it comes to training. I have more of a relaxed attitude about it, because you never know what’s gonna happen. I’ve been able to spend more time with my family, and that honestly has helped. I’ve actually gotten a little bit faster. I’m seeing improvement. And I think it’s just because of that more relaxed attitude when it comes to training.
Which of the three triathlon disciplines do you consider to be your strength, and which is the one where you feel like you have the most time to gain?
The bike has always been my weakest, and I’ve definitely seen some improvements there. After that race in Florida in December, our team got the chance to travel up to North Carolina to a wind tunnel, where we got to look in depth at the things that can make us faster. So that was huge for our team. I kind of changed my position on the bike and worked on keeping an arrow shape, getting more power. So the bike has improved. I would say it’s still the one that needs to improve even more.
The swim has always been my strength. People are catching up to me, so it’s more about trying to hold the swim where it is. And then my run, for whatever reason—whether it’s the more relaxed attitude or whatever—it just seems to be getting better. Which I’ll take.
What do you know about the course itself? Is there anything specific about the course in Tokyo that could affect how you train or give you an advantage or a challenge?
We know it’s gonna be very hot. Like, extremely hot. And the water’s gonna be warm, because it’s gonna be shallow water. When the water reaches a certain temperature, you’re not allowed to wear a wetsuit. So it is most likely gonna be a non-wetsuit swim, which is actually really good for swimmers like myself. It’s almost like the better swimmer you are, the less you’re relying on a wetsuit. So that could be a big benefit for me.
Could there be a sense in which everything that’s happened over the past year increases people’s appreciation for adaptive athletes? We have all been forced to adapt because of COVID. Does that help people identify with Paralympians a little more?
You know, I do a lot of public speaking. It’s all virtual these days, obviously. A lot of the things we talk about are related to how we never expected the pandemic and how we can get through it. A lot of Paralympic athletes have already kind of experienced that in their own life. You have to adapt and overcome, and a lot of us have already done that. It looks bleak in the beginning, but we get through it. And a lot of times, we end up even better on the other side. So, you know, I think Paralympic athletes have been through various circumstances where—we don’t want to be here, but we’re gonna get through it. It’s just kinda like another challenge.
In your speaking gigs this year, do you feel like that message has hit closer to home for people because of COVID?
I think hearing from someone who has been through a very big challenge and ended up better on the other side—I think stories like that give everyone a little bit of hope that it’s gonna be okay. We’re gonna get through this. And let’s just stay as optimistic as we can.