BEIJING – Melissa Stockwell has her share of coveted medals, like a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.
She was awarded those after her left leg was blown off almost 4 1/2 years ago, as a U.S. Army second-lieutenant hit by a roadside bomb during a routine convoy through Baghdad.
Now Stockwell is among 4,000 athletes competing in the Paralympic Games which open Saturday, and taking a medal there would offer a different kind of affirmation.
"Winning a (Paralympic) medal would show how far I'm come since getting the Purple Heart," said Stockwell, a 28-year-old swimmer with broad, tanned shoulders and a prosthetic left leg painted red, white and blue and flecked with a few stars and stripes.
"The medal would be great, but it would be icing on the cake," she said. "In my mind I've made it here, and that was my goal in the first place."
Opening just two weeks after the Beijing Olympics ended, the Paralympics are designed to be a "parallel games" for athletes with a wide range of physical disabilities. The first day of competition is Sunday and athletes will use many of the same Olympic venues, with 148 countries represented and 472 medal events contested — 170 more than the Olympics.
China welcomed world leaders to the Paralympics on Saturday, eager for another chance to demonstrate its organizational abilities before a global audience.
The guest list included Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, German President Horst Koehler and South Korean Prime Minister Han Seung-soo.
They shook hands and posed for photos with Chinese President Hu Jintao at the Great Hall of the People, the seat of China's legislature in the heart of Beijing. Hu gave a brief speech and toasted the games.
"Caring for the disabled is an important symbol for social civilization and progress," Hu said before raising his glass.
"Heroes are uncovered at the Olympics, but all of the Paralympic athletes arrive as heroes," said Xavi Gonzalez, chief executive officer of the International Paralympic Committee.
Stockwell is one of just two U.S. military veterans competing in Beijing who suffered traumatic injuries in Iraq. The other is Scott Winkler, who competes in discus and shot put. Winkler suffered paralysis after being injured in 2003 in Tikrit. In all, there are 16 veterans in the U.S. team of 213 athletes.
Stockwell's life took a turn a few months after the roadside attack. While recovering at the Walter Reed Army Medial Center, her husband Dick Stockwell — who also served in Iraq — suggested she attend a briefing on the Paralympics.
"I went to it and obviously I'm glad I did because it changed by life," she said. "I had dreams of going to the Olympics when I was young as a gymnast, so it's like I had a second chance at going."
Stockwell was determined to be active from the outset of her rehabilitation.
During her first four months of hospitalization, she went snow skiing and raced in a wheelchair in the New York City Marathon. A year after her injury, she was out of the hospital and swimming with a club team with one goal — making the Paralympics. She said she was never a strong swimmer, learning to swim as an 8-year-old, which is when her first swimming career also ended. She said at first she struggled to swim 25 meters.
"I knew I had a lot of room for improvement," Stockwell joked.
In recent trials for the U.S. team, she set an American record in the 400-meter freestyle. She will also swim the 100 free and 100 butterfly.
"She's not training to mess around," her coach Jimi Flowers said. "She's done everything she can to be successful."
The Paralympics have given Stockwell direction. In the meantime, she's also just completed a training course to fit other amputees with artificial limbs.
Stockwell explained: "You are injured, in the hospital and you don't have your leg and you wonder: `What can I do now? What's my life gong to be like now?' You need to have that goal in mind and work toward it."
Stockwell's best event is the 400 free. That's also a key event for Natalie Du Toit of South Africa. Du Toit, whose left leg was amputated above the knee after a motorcycle accident in 2001, won five gold medals and a silver at the Athens Paralympics and even competed in the regular Beijing Olympics, placing 16th in the 10-kilometer swim. She'll be a strong favorite again.
Du Toit and Polish table tennis player Natalia Partyka are the only athletes in Beijing who'll appear in both the Olympics and Paralympics. South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius, known as "The Blade Runner", failed in his bid to race in the Olympics but will run in the Paralympics.
"I've never thought of any difference between the Olympics and Paralympics," Du Toit said in an interview. "You train for both, you work hard for both. In the Olympics everyone seems focused on themselves. But in the Paralympics it's about making friends and also racing."
Marching in Saturday's opening ceremony will complete the circle for Stockwell, putting her back into a U.S. uniform — this time a sporting uniform rather than camouflage.
"It will be an honor wearing the uniform and being able to walk into opening ceremony with the USA on my back," she said. "You go to Iraq and you kind of defend the country in uniform, and here I am in a different uniform representing the same country."