NANAIMO — Michelle Stilwell is, without a doubt, the face of the Paralympic Games around these parts. It’s a face that’s invariably smiling, and if all goes to plan, she may soon have two more gold medals to smile about.
The 38-year-old mother from Nanoose Bay is in London this month to compete in her third Paralympic Games.
She won her first gold medal in Sydney in 2000 as part of Canada’s wheelchair basketball team. She had to give up hoops for health reasons, and has since excelled on the track, qualifying for the 2008 Games in Beijing and winning gold in both the 100-metre and 200m races.
So she’s a triple gold medallist. She holds world records in all her events. She’s a hall of famer and indisputably a fan favourite.
And yet she won’t ease off. Just the opposite, in fact.
“I just love a challenge, so every time I can shave a few hundredths of a second off the time, it shows me that the work I’m putting in is worth it, and there’s value there,” Stilwell said.
She said leading up to the London Games, her training has been “absolutely fantastic.” She made alterations to her push technique, her diet, and even her race chair. A whole bunch of little changes, she said, have combined to bring incredible results. At a meet in Switzerland in May, Stilwell lowered her own world records to 19 seconds in the 100m and 34.08 seconds in the 200m. Two months later in Windsor, Ont., she lowered her 100m record again to 18.67.
She keeps shaving off milliseconds, but that’s not her primary goal, she said.
“I’m never focused on trying to beat the clock, I’m really focused on the technique and the performance,” Stilwell said. “I know that if I push properly and don’t make any mistakes, it’s a flawless race, the result will come in the end.”
If she’s done the training, then it will show on race day, she said. In front of 25 friends and family members in London, Stilwell will wheel to the start line with a specific idea of how the race will go.
She’s won enough big races to know how to execute a game plan, no matter the environment.
“If you can plan the race and race the plan, good things will happen,” she said. “Of course you have to be somewhat flexible for the unexpected. You can’t totally let the unexpected throw you off your game.”
She’s pretty familiar with the field of competitors she will see in London in her T52 division, and goes in as the favourite. Maybe she’ll win double gold again. Maybe she’ll win double gold again, and be even better.
“If I push myself hard enough, I know there’s room for improvement. So I’m going to keep doing that…” she said. “I always know that you can do better.”
Michelle Stilwell races the 200m on Saturday (Sept 1). Qualifying is at 7:51 a.m. PST with the finals at 12:24 p.m. She then races the 100m Sept. 5 with heats at 2:24 a.m., final at 1:36 p.m.
Tony Theriault, a mixed fours rower from Nanaimo, has his first heat at 3:30 a.m. on Friday (Aug. 31) and the finals are Sept. 2 at 2:30 a.m.
Parksville’s Trevor Hirschfield is on the Canadian wheelchair rugby team, which plays their opening game on Sept. 5.
— Nanaimo News Bulletin/Black Press