Stilwell earns redemption with record-setting effort in Rio

Parksville-Qualicum MLA hasn't made decision on whether her fourth Summer Paralympics will be her last

Parksville’s Michelle Stilwell not only brought home two gold medals from the 2016 Summer Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, but bagged a shot of redemption as well.

Stilwell, 42, completed a sweep of her two sprint wheelchair races Saturday when she pulled away from the field to win the women’s T52 100 metres in a Paralympic Games-record 19.42 seconds.

The win restored her 100-metre title and Paralympic record, both established at the 2008 Games in Beijing and both taken away four years later in London, where she was relegated to second place and the silver medal behind the record-setting win of Belgium’s Marieke Vervoort.

“That’s part of the reason I’m going to Rio,” Stilwell said as she prepared to depart for Brazil late last month. “I know physically I’m ready; I will definitely have to work on my mental preparation for the Games. In London, that didn’t happen.”

Saturday’s win followed her gold-medal performance in the 400 metres one week earlier and left her holding the current Paralympic records at 100, 200 and 400 metres.

Stilwell, whose Paralympic career began on Canada’s gold medal-winning wheelchair basketball team at the Sidney Games in 2000, now has six gold medals and one silver over a span of four Summer Games. Between Sidney and Rio she has become a wife, a mother and, most recently, a member of the B.C. Legislative Assembly and cabinet minister.

Whether avenging her London showing and claiming a sweep of her two races in Rio is enough to send her into competitive retirement is a question for another day.

“Obviously I still have the endurance, the skill, the talent and the drive to compete,” Stilwell said before her departure to Rio. “But right now I’m not even thinking about that. I just need to focus on what my goal is right now and think about the next step after that’s completed.”

In the London Paralympics of 2012, Stilwell was visibly tense during the pre-race introduction of the riders, and got off to a horrendous start as Vervoort powered her way to a big lead. Over the final half of the race Stilwell found her rhythm and began gaining rapidly, but ran out of track in a close loss.

Last weekend in Rio, however, Stilwell seemed loose, smiling and waving at the camera in the moments before the race start. When the starting gun went off, Vervoort got off to her typical fast start, but Stilwell went right with her, and swiftly pulled away beginning just 20 metres into the race.

By the time she crossed the finish line, Stilwell was alone and pumping her fist in celebration. Vervoort finished third as Kerry Morgan of the U.S. passed her to place second, in 19.96 seconds.

“The goal was to come here and top the podium in both my races,” Stilwell said in an interview with the Canadian Paralympic Committee. “The plan me and my coach, Peter Lawless, have put in place and the work we have done for the past 12 years has come through.

“I am happy to bring back the gold for Canada.”

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