Michelle Stilwell of Parksville found herself in a familiar place following her opening race in the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro Saturday morning:
Right in the centre of the medal ceremony.
Stilwell claimed her fifth Paralympic gold medal — and sixth medal overall — with a record-setting victory in the women’s T52 400-metre wheelchair race in Rio’s Olympic Stadium.
Stilwell slashed nearly four seconds off the old Paralympic Games record while winning in a time of one minute, 5.43 seconds. Along the way, she defeated current world record-holder and reigning world champion Marieke Vervoort of Belgium, who followed in 1:07.62 for the silver. American Kerry Morgan claimed the bronze.
“I’m just so happy today to be able to bring home a gold medal for Canada,” Stilwell, 42, told CBC Television following the race. “It’s something pretty special.”
Stilwell is also the Paralympic record-holder at 200 metres, having first set the mark in Beijing in 2008 and breaking it while repeating as gold medalist in London in 2012. Saturday was her first try at the 400-metre distance in the Paralympics, and only because the 200 was not contested in the T52 class this year.
Stilwell will race once more in these Games, in the women’s T52 100-metre final next Saturday at 7:05 a.m. PDT. She won gold at the distance in Beijing before being edged by Vervoort in London and settling for silver.
Stilwell is competing in her fourth Paralympic Games, the first as a sitting member of B.C.’s provincial government. The Parksville-Qualicum MLA and cabinet minister previously won wheelchair basketball gold at the Sydney Games in 2000 before switching to the track for Beijing and London. She admitted her training schedule has changed since her election with the B.C. Liberal Party in 2013.
“There’s 24 hours in every day, and you have to make the most of them,” she said in the post-race interview. “It’s about productive time and using that time to challenge myself and to reach my full potential, really.”
Stilwell did just that in Saturday’s 400-metre final. She started in lane four, just in front of Vervoort in lane three in the staggered start for the one-lap race.
Vervoort appeared to get the better jump off the starting line, but Stilwell held the stagger through the first turn and pulled away down the back straight while overtaking Morgan, who raced in lane 7. By the time Stilwell came off the final turn she was essentially alone and smiled broadly as she powered through the final 10 metres.
“I slipped on the start, darn it anyways,” she said. “I think I used that to get back in my mental state, and the rest of the race I was loose and my cadence was great.”
Stilwell will try to replicate that effort in the anticipated rematch next Saturday at 100 metres, and she feels confident in her chances.
“I feel great; I feel relaxed,” she said. “I think my experience from other games is really going to help me out here.”
— NEWS Staff and submissions