By Dirk Meissner, THE CANADIAN PRESS
NANAIMO, B.C.: Barely three weeks ago, Michelle Stilwell was in British Columbia’s legislature locked in a raging debate about the province’s pursuit of a liquefied natural gas industry.
Next week, she’ll be on a race track at the Parapan Am Games in Toronto competing for gold, representing Canada as a multi-sport, medal-winning, Paralympian who holds world records as a wheelchair athlete.
Stilwell, 41, is a cabinet minister in Premier Christy Clark’s Liberal government. Her ministry, Social Development and Social Innovation, includes services for many of the province’s most vulnerable people, including those with disabilities, low incomes or single-parent families.
Stilwell became a quadriplegic at 17 when she fell during a piggyback accident with one of her friends. She said the accident forced her to get creative with her life, but dropping sports was never an option.
She’s gone on to become one of Canada’s most decorated Paralympians.
At the 2000 Paralympics in Sydney, she was part of Canada’s gold-medal winning wheelchair basketball team. Eight years later in Beijing, she won gold in both the 100- and 200-metre wheelchair races. She defended her 200 gold medal in London in 2012 but settled for silver in the 100. She’s also a three-time world champion. This will be her Parapan debut.
“For a lot of people they’d look at me and say, ‘Wow, it’s incredible what she’s done since I’ve been injured. I wouldn’t have been able to go on,”’ said Stilwell. “But nobody really knows until they are in that situation, and there’s one thing I know for sure, I’ve been given one life to live and I’m going to make the most of it.”
Stilwell, who was elected as the Liberal MLA for the Vancouver Island riding of Parksville-Qualicum, said it all comes down to taking responsibility for yourself.
“I want to get up and make the most of every day,” Stilwell said. “Whether that’s helping the province and helping the citizens who call British Columbia home or whether it’s about achieving goals on the track, it’s my desire and my passion to do those things.”
Stilwell’s hands grip the wheels, she loosens her shoulders and stares straight ahead and with several powerful thrusts she cruising around the track at Nanaimo’s Rotary Bowl track for a pre-Parapan Am Games training session.
She said she’s up early every morning for workouts in her garage or at the University of Victoria’s track. She said she’s also rigged a roller-type machine at her cabinet office.
“I don’t think I ever had the thought I wouldn’t have sport in my life,” said Stilwell. “It was always the fact that I was just going to do it differently. I just have to recreate myself a little bit.”
Stilwell’s athletic resourcefulness even extends to political meetings.
A pre-election political event in Nanaimo with federal Employment Minister Pierre Poilievre turned into a workout at Nanaimo’s Rotary Bowl, with the two ministers doing laps.
“Normally my exercise routine is not practising with (Paralympians),” said Poilievre, who was in Nanaimo with Stilwell to make a joint B.C.-Ottawa apprenticeship program announcement.
“It’s incredible,” he added. “I can tell you the schedule of any minister is jam-packed and the fact she’s able to combine that with being a mother and a world-class athlete is extraordinary. I’m very inspired by all the obstacles she’s been able to overcome in her life.”
Stilwell is married and has a teenage son who is autistic.
She said ever since she was a young girl she enjoyed watching podium ceremonies at sporting events, often wondering about the sacrifices and efforts the athletes made to achieve success. She said it will be extra sweet to hear “O Canada” in Toronto.
“I want to be able to represent Canada and hear our anthem play and (see) our flag rise.”
© 2015 The Canadian Press