These Veteran Athletes Don’t Let Anything Hold Them Back
When you picture an elite athlete’s diet, you might not expect to see pork rinds, chili and bacon and eggs. But that’s exactly what fueled Marine Corps veteran Rob Jones last fall to one of his most incredible achievements — running 31 marathons in 31 cities in 31 days, all on two prosthetics. After all, he needed to consume upwards of 4,000 calories per day, and those dishes made it easier.
Ensuring adequate caloric intake was just one of the logistical challenges. With a support team that included his wife, Pamela Relph (a Paralympic medal-winner herself, for Great Britain), and mother, Carol Wire, Jones carefully planned his route and locations. He decided not to run officially organized races; instead he logged 26.2 miles per day in city parks and trails. He timed his travel to allow nine hours of sleep per night, adjusted his prosthetics to manage blisters, and kept his pace slow enough to reduce strain on his body.
When he completed the last run on Nov. 11 beside the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool in Washington, D.C., he felt gratitude for the support — and for living in a country worth the effort.
“My purpose was to keep fighting for veterans and to be a positive example of what I was capable of doing,” he said. He and his team also raised more than $200,000 for the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes, the Semper Fi Fund and the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation.
It’s just one of Jones’ major accomplishments since stepping on an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan led to his two above-the-knee amputations in 2010. Within two weeks of surgery, he set a goal to compete in the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, moving to Florida to train. Not only did he make the team, he and his rowing partner, Oksana Masters, won a bronze medal in sculling in London.
The next year, he took a 181-day, 5,180-mile bike ride across the country, a journey that raised $126,000 for the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes, the Semper Fi Fund and Ride 2 Recovery, all groups that support wounded veterans.
For Jones, sports serve a critical role for injured veterans. “It’s a great way to find out what you do when you’re challenged,” he said. “And if you tend to quit, you can work on persevering.”
In many ways, sports programs act as an extension of rehab, noted Leif Nelson, a physical therapist and director of the VA’s Office of National Veterans Sports Programs and Special Events. By training for running, cycling, rowing or other events, veterans build their cardiovascular conditioning, improve their overall health and restore strength and function to their bodies.
Then there are the psychosocial advantages. Individual or team sports provide veterans with a community, and perhaps most importantly, they imbue a sense of what’s still possible — even if their abilities have changed. “Life is different after injury, and adaptive sports can be an effective tool in helping folks redefine who they want to be,” Nelson said.
When those same activities also give veterans the opportunity to continue serving, often by fundraising or coaching others, those psychological benefits only multiply.
The Patriot Racer
Chicago native and retired Marine Mike Mendoza signed up for the Chicago Triathlon in 2015 at the urging of a friend and without much preparation. Despite the spontaneous decision to enter his first triathlon, he won for his age group and finished seventh overall.
Mendoza began to train and compete in more marathons, and in 2017, he accomplished a world-record-breaking feat: completing 24 Ironman 70.3 triathlons (consisting of a 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile bike ride and a 13.1-mile run) in fewer than 12 months’ time, while raising money for the Semper Fi Fund.
Giving back brings the journey full circle for Mendoza. In 2006, a grenade thrown close to his reconnaissance mission in Fallujah, Iraq, severely damaged his internal organs. His physical wounds required extensive recovery and made travel challenging.
He underwent surgery in a Baghdad hospital and remained there for several weeks battling infections before finally getting cleared to travel to Germany and then to Naval Medical Center Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. His wife and newborn son scrambled to book travel arrangements to see him. The Semper Fi Fund stepped in with financial support.
Now, through his athletic endeavors, Mendoza has raised more than $60,000 for the organization.
The sporting events served other purposes for him, too. Mendoza also needed to heal mentally as he adjusted to civilian life and coped with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Antidepressants and therapy — which work for many, he acknowledged — didn’t click for him. Instead, he re-calibrated by pushing his body. “Once I started to do that, I felt like the chemical imbalance in my brain started leveling,” he said. He’d felt reserved and distrustful, but could open up when others asked about his racing.
Mendoza’s physical limitations do pose some competitive challenges. The blast damaged his hearing, and he can’t wear his hearing aids during races, so because he can’t hear other cyclists approaching, sometimes he nearly crashes into them. And the shrapnel still lodged in his diaphragm sometimes causes the muscle to cramp during intense workouts or races.
But overcoming these obstacles has been worth it, he said. After all, the money he raises for other vets provides athletic prosthetics and specialized equipment, and covers race fees. “There’s a new generation of younger service members that are going to need the help of us veterans,” he said. “I just felt like I needed to give back.”
The Medal-Winning Mom
Every April 13, former U.S. Army officer Melissa Stockwell invites her friends to a party. They dance, they eat cake, and they toast to Little Leg.
That’s the name Stockwell has given to the remaining portion of her left appendage, the rest of which was taken by a roadside bomb in Baghdad on April 13, 2004. “We actually celebrate the day,” Stockwell said. “It’s easy to get kind of caught up in everything that’s going on, but when you take a moment or a day to step back and think about your life, we’re all very lucky.”
Long before she enlisted, Stockwell was a young gymnast with Olympic dreams. She also possessed a strong love for her country, which compelled her to join the ROTC in college. When she graduated in 2002, she was commissioned as an officer and deployed to Iraq two years later.
Injury soon changed her plans. “I was 24 years old, and didn’t really know what my life would be,” she said. Once she learned to walk with a prosthetic, she heard about the Paralympic Games. Instantly, her dreams of competing were revived.
She started with swimming and made the U.S. delegation to Beijing in 2008, but wasn’t quite satisfied with her placement. She transitioned to triathlon, trained in all three sports, and not only made the 2016 team in Rio, but took home the bronze medal as part of an American sweep.
“I’m very athletically driven,” she said. “I’ve found I have a passion behind sports, the way it makes me feel. It’s proving to myself that I can still have these big goals, whether I have one leg or two.”
She’s shared that sentiment through the Dare2tri Paratriathlon Club, which she co-founded in 2011. Now, more than 300 athletes — with disabilities including amputation, spinal cord injury and visual impairment — receive coaching, adaptive equipment and other support.
And, Stockwell — who now lives in Western Springs, Ill., — continues to train and compete herself, with her eyes on the 2020 Tokyo team. She’ll be 40 years old with two children, but that’s all the more reason for her to persevere: “To show my kids that you put in the work and dreams can come true.”