Paralympian Michelle Stilwell added two medals to her collection this summer at the London games. The wheelchair sprinter from Nanoose Bay, B.C. shattered her world-record time in the 200m event to repeat as champion. But Stilwell’s highlight of the games had nothing to do with her own achievements.
“The London games were the most successful Paralympic games in history, to a point where I think it could have forever changed the way the Paralympics are perceived,” Stilwell says. “I left the village with this overwhelming sense of wonder and accomplishment for having been part of what happened in London.
“For the first time, the majority of reporters were talking about the brilliance and the talent of the athletes, without ever having to mention that one was a dwarf, an amputee, or a paraplegic. We were just marathoners, and swimmers, and sprinters…It was something bigger than one individual. It really was just a huge advancement for the Paralympic movement.”
A record 2.7 million tickets sold for Paralympic events, according to the International Paralympic Committee (IPC). An IPC study following the games found one in three U.K. adults changed their attitude towards people with an impairment.
A main goal of IPC is to bridge the interest gap between the Olympics and Paralympics, and have athletes recognized for their athletic skill—not their disability.
“I think we’re constantly bridging that gap and [the movement] is getting stronger, and there’s more unity between the Paralympics and Olympics,” Stilwell says.
“Fans were showing up in masses, and they were learning about the different adapted sports. With their new-found knowledge they were growing incredibly excited to watch us athletes, the best in the world, and they were there to watch us perform to the highest level.”
That said, Stilwell competed in London with the sole mission of meeting her goal: to defend both her gold medals in the 100m and 200m sprints. Having already toured London in the past, Stilwell chose to forego sightseeing and mingling to focus on her performance.
“I definitely was there with one thing on my mind, and that was putting all the hard work of four years into place…I was so intensely focussed on what I needed to do there, so I was trying to minimize any kind of distraction,” Stilwell says.
She executed her game plan to near-perfection. The 38-year-old retained her gold in the 200m race, but fell slightly short in the 100m event to finish 0.11 seconds behind Belgian Marieke Vervoort for silver.
Stilwell competes in the T-52 category of Paralympic classification, meaning she is a quadriplegic athlete with good shoulder, elbow, and wrist function. She was rendered paralyzed from an accidental fall at 17-years-old.
An athlete before her accident, Stilwell secured a position on Canada’s Paralympic basketball team for the 2000 Sydney games—a feat she was told to be impossible. Not only was she the only female quadriplegic basketball player in Sydney but she helped Canada win the gold medal.
Shortly after, Stilwell was forced to retire from basketball after complications arose from her spinal cord injury. She later moved to wheelchair sprinting, and upon dominating in the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, became the only female Paralympic athlete to win gold medals in two different summer sports.
“My first Paralympic medal was alongside eleven other incredible athletes and I got to share that with them to work together for a common goal. [I was told] that as a quadriplegic it wasn’t possible to play at the international stage,” Stilwell says.
“Beijing obviously was a whole new sport and it took a different kind of drive and determination to get myself to that elite level. And I went from being in a team sport to being in the 100m sprint event, which is the premier event of track and field, and it’s probably the one that gets the most exposure. So it came with a whole set of different pressures.”
Stilwell says that winning her fourth gold medal is just as exciting as the first. Every victory represents a unique experience and a different accomplishment. In London, being able to defend one of her gold medals was an enormous achievement.
“To win a gold medal at the Olympics or Paralympics is a huge feat, and to repeat is even bigger. It takes strength, and determination, and one hell of a solid plan to make it to the top,” Stilwell says.
Now back on Vancouver Island, Stilwell continues to train and home-school her 11-year-old son, Kai. Finding balance between athletics and her home life is something she has grown used to. “I have a lot of roles, and a lot of different hats that I wear. It’s a big juggling act in my house…[but] that time is so valuable and special,” Stilwell says.
She hopes to compete in the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro to retake the 100m title, but recognizes the commitment necessary for another Paralympic push. “There are a lot of things that have to line up for that to happen. At this point, I like to think that there’s a chance. But every day is a new day,” Stilwell says.