Michelle Stilwell is retiring from international paralympic competition with six gold medals and her sights set on another kind of race, the May 9 provincial election.
The Parksville Qualicum B.C. Liberal Party MLA and cabinet minister made the announcement Wednesday night via Twitter. The NEWS interviewed her about her decision on Tuesday.
“It’s time to move forward,” said Stilwell, 42. “At the end of the day, it’s not about the medals I have, it’s about who you have become and I’m happy with where I’m at.”
Stilwell capped a remarkable athletic career last summer at the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro when she won gold medals in both the 100M and 400M wheelchair races. She currently holds the world record in the 100M, 200M and 800M events and the Paralympic record at 400M.
Stilwell was born in Winnipeg before moving to Alberta where she earned a Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Calgary. She was injured as a teenager when she broke her neck falling down some stairs after piggy-back riding on a friend, leaving her a quadriplegic. She endured multiple surgeries and complications over the years, including brain surgery in 2005.
“I’m proud of overcoming all the circumstances around my injury and never giving up,” said Stilwell, who was asked if there were many dark days during her ordeal. “Surprisingly, not very many.”
She won her first Paralympics gold medal in 2000 at the Sydney, Australia Games in wheelchair basketball. She then moved to Parksville and found she couldn’t be with the Calgary-based national wheelchair basketball team, so she switched to wheelchair racing. She won two gold medals at the 2008 Games in Beijing and another gold at the 2012 London Games.
Stilwell was asked which one of her gold medals stood out for her. She said she could not choose one.
“They all have unique stories behind them.”
Stilwell gave birth to son Kai in 2001. She didn’t hesitate when asked to talk about who has provided her with the most support over the years.
“The biggest support I have ever gotten was from (husband) Mark and Kai,” she said.
She also mentioned long-time coach Peter Lawless: “We had so many successes; I owe him a lot for believing in me.”
After winning her fourth Paralympic gold in London in 2012, Stilwell was given the key to the City of Parksville, still the only person honoured by the city in that fashion. She then decided to run for the Parksville-Qualicum seat in the B.C. Legislature and won handily. She was sworn in as Minister for Social Development and Social Innovation in February of 2015.
She has taken some heat in some quarters from people who said they believed she should not be competing internationally while working as a cabinet minister.
“That (criticism) did not have a role in my decision-making (to retire),” said Stilwell. “This (MLA) is a job I have grown to love and I’m hopeful (the voters of Parksville-Qualicum) will give me the opportunity to be their voice in Victoria.”
She said she came to the decision to retire around Christmas when she got to spend more time with Mark and Kai and realized “the time I’ve been missing with them.”
While she won’t be competing internationally, Stilwell said she will continue to be active physically.
“I will still get up and be involved in daily physical activity,” she said. “Nothing’s really changed except I’m not going to put the Maple Leaf on and compete for Canada. I’m a workaholic, whether that’s politics or sport.”