"I remember knowing it would be OK," she said. "I know that sounds weird, but I knew it would be."
It took Stockwell three months to relearn how to walk using her first prosthesis. After a year of rehabilitation and recovery from more than a dozen surgeries and complications from infections, she skied on one leg with the Vail Veterans and took up swimming, a sport she could manage without the prosthetic leg.
Four years after the injury, she became the first Iraq War veteran to be selected for the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing when she made the U.S. swim team. She didn't medal but was deeply honored to be chosen to carry the American flag during the closing ceremonies.
After the Paralympics, Stockwell began biking and running, enjoying the cross training. In 2009 she completed her first full Olympic-distance triathlon — a one-mile swim, 26-mile bike ride and 6.2-mile run — in Chicago, winning her division. Though only two other above-the-knee amputees competed, they were formidable opponents. One was Stockwell's role model, Sarah Reinertsen, who in 2005 was the first such amputee to complete the Hawaii Ironman competition.
As a paratriathlete, Stockwell has been unbeatable, winning three consecutive International Triathlon Union Paratriathlon World Championships for her division. She triumphantly crossed the finish line of the New York City Marathon in 2011 on one sound limb and one J-shaped carbon-fiber spring foot, after completing it twice using a handcycle. In September she held her own against able-bodied swimmers, winning her age group in the Big Shoulders 5K open swim in Lake Michigan.
"Melissa knows she has done incredible things, but in her mind there was no real option other than moving on with her life and living it to the best of her ability," said Dare2Tri Executive Director Keri Schindler, one of Stockwell's closest friends. "Sometimes people who have overcome a lot let accolades go to their heads, but the attention hasn't affected Melissa. She's still a regular down-to-earth person."
Stockwell isn't sure how long the Ironman will take — she just knows that it will be painful and that she will finish. After that, she plans to start training for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, where the triathlon makes its debut as an event.
"The long-distance races are brutal on her residual limb; the skin gets pretty torn up inside the socket," said her boyfriend, Brian Tolsma, who also works as a prosthetist. "Seeing (sores) on her limb make me cringe, but she never lets it slow her down."
Indeed, Stockwell is usually on the go — and on her feet — from early morning until well into the evening, even though it takes more energy for an amputee to walk and stand.
On a recent day, after two morning workouts — a 4.5-mile run and an hourlong exercise class that included barre work, yoga and core strengthening — she headed to work at Scheck & Siress, an orthotic and prosthesis lab at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
At Scheck & Siress, Stockwell spent most of the afternoon standing, crouching and nimbly moving around to help fit 45-year-old Sue Tinucci with a new leg. Tinucci, of Glendale Heights, has used a prosthetic leg since losing her real one to cancer at age 10. Inspired by Stockwell, she now wants to try running.
"Melissa is not only an amputee, but she's doing all kinds of exciting things," Tinucci said during her appointment. "It's always a challenge to explain to someone how you're feeling. But Melissa knows where I'm coming from."
Stockwell has advised Tinucci on everything from how to wear flip-flops to which antiperspirant to use to keep the limb from slipping out of the socket, which often gets sweaty. She encouraged Tinucci to decorate her new leg with her favorite fabric design or T-shirt. "Everyone one is going to look anyway," she told her. "It might as well be a cool color."
The socket of Stockwell's own kneeless running leg is red and blue with white stars; it draws stares wherever she goes. When Stockwell, Danisewicz and Schindler recently ran down Michigan Avenue at 6 a.m. to look at Christmas lights, nearly everyone they passed did a double take, surprised by the sight of the mechanical legs swinging out to the side.
Stockwell doesn't like to talk while she's running. But if she's out in public and in the mood, she'll make eye contact with people who gaze a little too long and say: "It's OK. You want to know how I lost my leg?"
If she's in a hurry, she simply looks away.
"Kids always want to know, and parents usually try to hush them, almost like they're embarrassed," Stockwell said. "But the best response a parent could give is: 'Yes, isn't that cool? Look what she can do.'"