By Rory Carroll
(Reuters) - Sports fans still fail to recognize the huge effort and dedication it takes to get on to a Paralympic team, American triathlete Melissa Stockwell said.
"Some misconceptions are that with the Paralympics, we just sign up and go to the Games," the Iraq war veteran told Reuters.
"But we train just as hard as able-bodied athletes. We sacrifice just as much.
"The toll on our body is just as much or more when someone is dealing with a prosthetic limb or a spinal cord injury or are in a wheelchair. We work just as hard as Olympic athletes.
"The hope is that people continue to realize that and put us on that same level playing field as Olympians."
Stockwell, who lost her left leg in a roadside bombing in April 2004, won a bronze medal in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro and plans to compete in Tokyo in August in her third Paralympic Games.
The 41-year-old mother of two said she could never have imagined the path her life would take after she became the first female American soldier in history to lose a limb in active combat.
Her proudest sports moment came when she received her bronze medal in Rio after the U.S. swept the podium places on the solemn date of Sept. 11, 2016 -- the 15th anniversary of the al Qaeda attacks on the United States.
"Standing on that podium, hearing the national anthem, three American flags go up -- that was monumental and will go down as one of the greatest moments of my entire life," she said.
"I'm very proud of the life that I've led. I'm proud to be an above-the-knee amputee, I'm proud to have worn our country's uniform and served the best that I could," she said.
"And if what I do inspires the next generation, or someone who is going through a tough time themselves, that's just the cherry on top."
Stockwell, who has partnered with Team USA sponsor Nabisco to promote Olympics-themed snacks, encouraged people to take on new challenges.
"Never tell yourself you can't do something unless you get out there and give it a try," she said.
"Before I lost my leg, I thought triathletes were crazy. You swim, bike and run all in the same day. And here I am at the elite level of triathlon.
"So get out there, and if you're uncomfortable doing something, find that courage to get out there and try it and maybe you'll be good at it. Maybe it will lead you somewhere else."
(Editing by Clare Fallon)