BUCKTOWN — Saturday brings the ninth anniversary of the loss of a Bucktown woman's leg — plus the arrival of a part of herself she's proudly named "Little Leg."
"It's common for veterans like myself, on the anniversary that they lost their limb, instead of mourning what you lost, you celebrate what you still have," Melissa Stockwell said.
In this spirit, friends of the 33-year-old paratriathlete will be flying in from all over the country to join Stockwell and her boyfriend at "Little Leg's 9th Birthday Party" Saturday.
"It's about being thankful for life, what you have, a day to celebrate, really," Stockwell said.
Stockwell was the first female American soldier to lose a limb in combat in the Iraq War, after a roadside bomb exploded on April 13, 2004.
In a party invitation graphic, Little Leg wears a baseball cap with the phrase "Life is Good."
Indeed, life has been good for Stockwell, who told the Sun-Times in 2008 that she had "maybe an hour" of self-pity before moving on with her life.
And move she did.
Less than a year after losing her leg, Stockwell crossed the finish line in the New York City Marathon. Three years after that she became the first Iraq War veteran to be selected for the 2008 Summer Paralympics in Beijing, where she competed in three swimming events.
The now three-time paratriathlete, who's racked up a long list of awards and honors and was featured in a 2009 documentary, is going to be competing in her first Ironman competition Nov. 17 in Arizona.
"I'm excited and nervous," Stockwell said of the race, which comprises a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bicycle ride and 26.2-mile run.
"When I race I think about all the soldiers that gave the ultimate sacrifice and race for them. That gets me through," Stockwell said.
While Saturday's Little Leg birthday party at Bucktown's Six Degrees Bar is "more of a personal rather than public thing," Stockwell said the following day she's encouraging the public to attend a "Start the Season" fundraiser for Dare2Tri from 2-5 p.m. Sunday at Dave & Busters, 1030 N. Clark St.
"Our mission is to get youth and injured service members into races and camps and on elite teams," Stockwell said.
Stockwell co-founded the paratriathlon club in 2011, which helps to train anyone who has a disability to compete in triathlons.
Stockwell said there are 120 athletes, ranging in age from 8 to 60, participating in the Dare2Tri programs,
Stockwell said the triathlon season begins Memorial Day with a race in Texas, where an elite team of five athletes, including herself, will participate.
Funds raised at Sunday's event will help to pay for training, coaching, putting on multisport clinics, three-day camps, race-entry assistance and providing expensive adaptive equipment for athletes such as hand cycles and racing chairs, Stockwell said.
When she's not training, coaching other athletes or fulfilling motivational speaking engagements across the country, Stockwell works part-time at Scheck and Siress Prosthetics and helps to fit new amputees with prosthetics limbs.
"Many times the hardest part is to get someone to believe they can do something. After they try it, they realize how capable they are. Outlets such as Dare2Tri are great resources for our patients," she said.
Stockwell trains 10 to 15 hours a week at neighborhood swimming pools and bikes on the lakefront. She jogs on neighborhood streets.
Stockwell rides a custom Trek bicycle that was designed to "reflect her story and personality," according to the bicycle manufacturer's website, which chronicled the making of the unique cycle, which has the date of her injury inscribed on its frame.
As for what inspires her, for Stockwell it's the simple knowledge that life doesn't last forever.
"Life is short. You never know when things can happen in an instant, and be thankful for what you have," she said.