Tuesday, September 21, 2010

World Champ!

I'm way overdue. It's been over two weeks since Worlds and I haven't even shared the good the news yet. Brace yourself... I WON! I came home with a gold medal around my neck and a new title of World Champion. How sweet is that you may ask? Very.

My plan was to tell you all about the trip to Budapest, the details of both the trip and the race. Since it's been a few weeks I will keep it to what I remember most when I look back. The first being, of course, the race.

As I mentioned before, the race was a sprint distance triathlon. There was a total of 88 paratriathletes which was a record and very exciting. My category had a total of 4 above the knee amputees. Compared to last year's 1, that was pretty exciting too. The race was on Saturday Sep 11th and the days before were wet and rainy and we all braced ourselves for a rainy race day. The day before the race we (meaning me and my other 15+ teammates) went down to check out the transition area. We were required to drop our bikes off the day before the race and a few of us opted to ride down to transition from our hotel instead of jumping in a cab with our bike. Now let me tell you, riding a bike through the streets of Budapest = precarious, dangerous and thrilling all at the same time. Somehow, we all made it down there alive and began the process of setting up our bikes. Did I mention the rain? Um, yeah, trying to keep our bikes dry then and overnight was almost a joke, but we put plastic bags on the seat and the gears and headed back to the hotel. Unlike the previous nights of 2+ hour dinners with 20 people, we had a quick dinner and was back in the room by 8pm to get ready for the race the next day.

Trying to sleep before a big race is always a struggle. I was kept awake by ideas of how I could be just seconds faster, and the idea of finishing first and the meaning behind doing it on Sep. 11th. So when the alarm went off at 3:30am, it wasn't a big surprise as I had been watching the minutes tick by throughout the night.

Dick and I met my teammates in the lobby and we were off to the races. Let me throw in here that my teammates are beyond awesome, all 20 of them. And awesome is an understatement. I got to know so many wonderful people on this trip and really, really enjoyed hanging out with everyone. Jon Beeson and Justin Model acted as our honrary team managers and we couldn't have been there without them. They helped us in every aspect, from getting to Budapest, figuring out what to do once we got there, the race itself, etc, etc. Two very kind and incredible people and a big thanks to them. As a team we were together constantly and shared many laughs and good memories. I really felt honored and proud to be a part of the team.

Back to the race. We got to transition and got set up. There seemed no hope that the rain would let up and everything was so soaked that it really didn't matter anymore. Instead of trying to keep dry, i just put it all out there. This race was going to happen, rain or not.

The swim was an in water start and we started promptly at 6:30am. The water was, um, cold. Like take your breath away kind of cold. When the gun went off to start, it was a struggle to keep my face in the water and keep moving. As usual, people were kicking each other in the madness that occurs at the start. I eventually got moving and tried to keep a pace. It was a 750 meter swim that I believe I did in about 15 min. Coming out of the water is always somewhat confusing as you're not sure where to go, or where your handlers will be. But I was assisted out of the water, carried up to Dick, Justin Model and Jon Beeson (the fabulous 3) and they helped me strip my wetsuit, get on my running leg and I was off to T1.

In T1 I saw that of the other 3 above the knee amputees, I was the first out of the water. This is always a huge mental advantage and I felt confident as I got onto the bike. The bike was a 2 loop, 13 mile course. It was set up in a way where you could see your competition 5 times depending on where you were on the course. I picked a good pace, a high rpm as not to wear my leg out for the run, and went on my way. On the first turn around I took not that I was a few miles ahead of my nearest competitor and I was thrilled. I was feeling great and was confident I could keep it up to post a good, final bike time.
Let me mention here that one of my favorite competitors, Sarah Reinersten, had gotten sick during the swim and had pulled out of the race. I knew that something must have gone wrong when I didn't see her, as she was the one I was keeping my eye on. When I pulled into T2 and was told she wasn't going to finish I was heartbroken. Knowing the training, time, money and effort to get to Budapest in the first place, and to be stopped early on by getting sick is not a happy thing. I wished more than anything that she was out on the course with the rest of us. Especially knowing that she was not only my best competition, but her actions throughout the years had motivated me to be there in the first place. I owed and owe a lot to her and I would have love to be finishing the race out with her.

The 3.1 mile run course was on a path along the Danube river. All along I'd hear spectators with their thick accents from around the world, yelling go USA, go Stockwell. Talk about awe inspiring. Here I was running in the World Championship, down the Danube, passing gorgeous bridge after gorgeous bridge, it was almost like a dream. Thankfully, the rain had stopped at this point and the damp air, the meaning of the moment and the race itself took over. I felt like I was running on air not to mention I was making great time.
The race finish was across the Chain bridge which is this huge bridge with lion statues on each end. If you've ever seen pictures of a bridge in Budapest, it is probably this one. As I neared the bridge, I knew that the race was mine, and I would cross that finish line first. It was my time to shine. I stepped onto the bridge and was flooded with emotion. Here, on Sep 11, wearing the USA uniform, and I was going to be a world champions. A freakin' world champion! Could it get any better? Yes, in fact it could. Halfway across the bridge I saw a man handing out American flags. He handed me one and as I took it, held it high and sprinted what was left of the race with tears in my eyes finishing first with a 1:39. It was one of those moments that was so meaningful and so full of emotion that I know I will look back on it frequently and remember all that came with it. What a great day it was.

I stayed at the finish as my teammates came in one by one. We talked and laughed with our stories of the race and tried to keep warm huddled together in our space blankets. I had a permanent smile on my face and it was a moment I will never forget. Me, World Champion, really? Ha. Life really is good.

After that excitement the trip ended on another good note. The next day the rain stopped and it was beautiful. Much of the team went up to the castle overlooking the city and attended a wine and jazz festival on the castle grounds. We could look down
into the city and see the pro athletes competing. Match that with good company, good wine, good weather, overlooking the city of Budapest and it was almost perfect.
To top off the day and make it perfect we went to the awards ceremony and I got to stand on top of the podium and raise my hands and flag high as they called my name out. A gold medal! Nice, of course, but mix that with the red, white and blue and once again, things were perfect. It was a glorious moment and a glorious end to what had been a fantastic, memory making trip.

A huge heartfelt thanks to all that believed in me and helped me get there. My friends and family, the Challenged Athletes Foundation, the Wounded Warrior Project, CTS and many others. I realize now more than ever that surrounding myself with people that believe in me is the only way I can live my life. So thank you.

We got home over two weeks ago now and I've been on the road since. Working out a little, but really wondering what is next for me athletically. I haven't signed up for anything yet and am taking some time to just sit back and figure out what I want to do next. In the meantime, I've been to Seattle, Atlanta, Colorado and Maryland for various things. In a few weeks I'll head off to Guatemala and Ecuador for a prosthetic mission trip with the Range of Motion Project. But not before I head out to CA next week and get to see the wonderful Mrs. Stephanie Doan among others. Jake has become an expert traveler.
On a high point when I was in CO, I climbed my first 14er (14,000 foot mountain for those non- Coloradans) with one leg. It was tough, tougher than I thought, but getting to the top and looking out at what seems like the top of the world made it all worth it. It was awesome and even more awesome that I got to do it with my bff Tiffany and my cousin Katie. I swear the mountain air is good for the soul.

As of now, there doesn't seem to be much slowing down. As far as races, you're guess is as good as mine. The last Blade Runner 5K of the year is this weekend and I'm looking forward to that. But after that, maybe I'll take a break, maybe I'll pick some crazy race to do next year, maybe a half- ironman, maybe an Ironman, who knows. But whatever comes along, I'll be sure to keep you posted along the way.

Peace Out.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Budapest or bust.

Apparently I do my best blog updates on the plane so here we go again…this time I am headed over to Budapest, Hungary for the ITU Paratriathlon World Championships. Today is Wednesday Sep 8 and the big race is this Saturday Sep 11. More on that later…

Let’s see, I last left off after the NYC triathlon where I qualified for this weekend’s race. So we’ll get the race briefings out of the way first. I’ve had a few races since NY, a sprint triathlon in LaPorte, IN with a few friends and the Chicago triathlon just two weekends ago. The sprint one was a good gauge for how this weekend will go as it was also a sprint tri. I felt pretty good and have a goal time in mind for Saturday that I’ll shoot for. I did this same race last yar and it’s so easygoing compared to the madness of the bigger NYC/ Chicago type races and it’s very enjoyable. You can actually get to the transition area 30 min before the race starts and still make the start of the race instead of the 5am transition time and a 9am start time for the Chicago tri which is pure craziness.

Unfortunately, the Chicago tri was a different story and it turned out to just not be my day. As an Olympic distance race, I was trying to better my time from NYC by going sub 3:30. The swim started off great, the bike was a whole mph faster than last year and I felt OK going into the run until I hit mile 1. Yes, ONE. Then I sucked, just pure and simple suckiness. The heat had much to do with it as it was easily in the 90’s that day and I walked more than I ran on the run wondering why on earth I subjected myself to the misery of the day. Luckily I had an early start time as the race ran out of water and the later waves were stuck with none, which may have been enough for me to end it early. I finished at a 3:42, 12 min over my goal time of a 3:30. I was told over and over not to let that discourage me from Worlds and it honestly hasn’t. I’d rather I have an off day in Chicago and save the stellar performance for Budapest so I’m perfectly fine with how it went. Plus, I’m learning that I can’t get a personal best at every race and that’s just how it is. I do have to give a shout out to Susan Katz, who totally rocked the race, to Keri for coming back and finding me after she finished and motivating me to get to the finish line and of course, my bff Tiffany who finished her first full Olympic triathlon with no water and blisters on her feet the size of Texas.

I’ve been doing some decent training in between the races and really trying to prepare for this weekend. I threw in my first 1/2 marathon and managed to cross the finish line a little over 2:30. It was a last minute decision to get in and at mile 10 I was wishing my goals weren't so ambitious at times. But I crossed the finish line and can check my first 1/2 marathon of the bucket list.
I have a new bike setup that I absolutely love. For a weekend before the Chicago tri I was out in San Diego at an all amputee triathlon camp put on by the Challenged Athletes Foundation. It was a great weekend with top-notch coaches and being able to train alongside fellow Paratriathletes. If you ever need some motivation, go on a ride with 10 above the knee amputees through the rolling hills of San Diego. You’ll push yourself harder that you have in a long time when you watch these athletes grind their way up a hill. It’s incredible, it really is. While I was out there we adjusted my bike for a more efficient set up and pair that with a new biking leg that Dave and I worked on and viola, I actually feel like I move now when I’m on the bike. It’s quite nice. Add that in with a good amount of swimming and biking and I’d say I’m ready for Saturday. Of course there is always more training that could have been done. The mornings I turned off my alarm and stayed to bed, the evenings when there was something better to do, but as Jimi Flowers would say, it is what is it, and ready or not, here I come.

In other non- athletic news, Dick was out in Washington DC for a month doing an away
rotation in radiology. After many months of wondering what specialty is for him, it’s come down to radiology and we’re both pretty excited about it. As a 4th year medical student, it is common to rotate for a full month at the programs you hope to match into for residency training. As a radiologist in the Army, Dick will have 4 possible programs he can go to. Walter Reed in DC, Madigan Army hospital outside of Seattle, Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio and Tripler in Hawaii. In Oct we will rank our top choices and in Dec the Army will tell us where we will be going. Dick enjoyed his month at Walter Reed and after Budapest he’ll head out to Madigan in Seattle to see which program he prefers. Keep in mind this is a 5 year residency so wherever we go it will be for a substantial amount of time. So for all you wondering why not Hawaii, that is why. Plus, we’re scared of sharks.

I got the chance to go out to DC for almost 10 days while Dick was out there. I made a few visits to Walter Reed to see my old PT’s and others around the hospital. A highlight of the trip was meeting a recent female who is also an above the knee amputee like myself. We have a good amount in common and she was highly motivated and ready to get back into life, which was great to see. She will be at a military sports camp later this year that I’m helping with and I can’t wait to see her again and see how much she’s progressed. I fully enjoyed my time there and seeing all the old and new friends we have in the DC area. An early morning run on the national mall one morning reminded us just how awesome DC can be. The monuments, the history, the running and biking trails...I think it will be up pretty high on the rankings list.

In early August I took my first 2 board exams on my way to being a certified prosthetist. There are 2 written exams and a practical exam. The written tests are offered in Chicago several times a year but the practical test is only offered twice a year in FL or TX. So I’ll be traveling to TX early next year for that one. I’ve never been a stellar standardized test taker and I can’t say I felt overly confident on both of the written tests. They are each 4 hours long and I chose to take them on separate days back to back. I knew some of the material, but some I didn’t know at all and was guessing blindly. I walked out pretty unsure of what the results would be. They make you wait about 4 weeks for the results and...drum roll please…I passed them both. I actually passed! I had to look at my score sheet about 20 times to make sure it was really my name and really a passing score, but I am now 2/3 towards becoming a certified prosthetist. I still can’t really believe I passed my first go around but the results are in, and I’m thrilled. Hopefully it’s similar results for the last practical exam and I’ll be Melissa Stockwell, CP by early next year. Yeah yeah!

I think that leads me to this weekend’s race. To recap, this weekend is the ITU World Championship. ITU stands for the International Triathlon Union. All the big name triathletes from around the country are headed to Budapest to compete this weekend. The pros, age groupers, elite athletes, and of course, the best group of all, the Paratriathletes. I am told there will be approximately 70 Paratriathletes competing, which would be a record in terms of numbers. That encompasses all 6 of the paratri groups and both male and female. As far as above the knee women, I know of 4 others at this point but there could be more. This is a huge step in the Paratriathlon movement as last year there was only 1 above the knee female and many less overall. In Dec of this year we will find out if Paratriathlon will be a Paralympic sport in 2016 but it seems we are already moving towards that direction.

This weekend’s race is a sprint triathlon for us Paratriathletes. It will be a 750 meter swim, a 12 mile bike and a 5K or 3.1 mile run. For me, this is both good and bad. Bad, because the swim is shorter and I usually get my best lead with the longer swims. The shorter the swim, the less of an advantage I have. Good, because I usually hurt at mile 3 of the run and for this race, I’ll be finishing at mile 3 of the run. It is a much different race than an Olympic distance as there is a big focus on speed and transition times as opposed to the slow and steady mentality. I’d be lying it I said I didn’t have high hopes for myself here. I really think I can do well and surprise myself with the results. It is that much more important as we race on September 11th. There is no better way to honor those that have lost their lives, on and since Sep 11, 2001 than racing to my fullest potential with USA on my back. On Sat, my race is dedicated to all those that are no longer here with us and as I cross that finish line, regardless of the results, I’ll be thankfull that I can represent this great country.
I am flying on my own now as Dick had to work until Thursday. On Thursday, he’ll fly over for the race on Sat and then we’ll both leave on Monday. It will be a quick trip for him and once again, his support in all that I do is incredible. A 12+ hour flight, for a 3 day visit, only to turn around an head back to Chicago for less than 24 hours before heading to Seattle for a month…I truly am a lucky girl.

So, for now, that is all. I will update with results as soon as I am able to get some time to sit down and write it out. Until then, remember the troops on Sep 11th, Go USA and God Bless America!

Peace Out.