When the phone rang in my home last week and a congenial voice said, “Hello, this is Michelle Stilwell,” I instantly sensed her exceptional vitality.
An elite athlete, she has won an impressive array of medals, including six gold and one silver in the Sydney, Beijing, London and Rio de Janeiro Paralympics.
At age 17, while being piggy-backed by a friend down a flight of stairs, she fell and suffered a life altering injury. In spite of requiring the use of a wheelchair, she exudes a sparkling zest for life.
I wanted to understand how she had been able to move ahead and become a highly regarded athlete, and more recently, an effective member of the B.C. Legislature.
Michelle expressed gratitude for a good early beginning. “My parents owned a hotel in Winnipeg,” she said. “Observing them, I learned the value of a dollar. I was expected to work for the money they gave me. At first it was chores at home. Then I bussed in the hotel restaurant and cleaned rooms. Eventually I became the front desk clerk. I liked people and I liked responsibility. I was class president in school and a youth leader in church. Through sport I learned about teamwork, leadership and dedication. Prior to my injury I wanted to become a flight attendant and travel the world.”
Her aspirations and dreams crashed when, three weeks before graduation, she landed in a helpless heap on the floor. For most victims of such physical and psychological trauma, it might have seemed there was little left to live for.
“In the rehab hospital there were certainly occasional days when I didn’t want to do anything,” she acknowledged. “Fortunately, they had a program that enabled me to graduate. I was introduced to wheelchair basketball and I began to see a path ahead. I committed to that path.”
She began playing on a mixed basketball team, the only female. “I don’t have hand function so my role was to get the big man into the key so he could score.” There were new challenges when she started travelling with the team. Bathroom doors weren’t wide enough for a wheelchair, or the bed was too high to get into. For over three years she spent a lot of time in the hospital.
Michelle didn’t deny reality. Instead, she decided to view her situation through a positive prism. “I knew I wouldn’t get a reset button to start over. I needed to do the best with what I had. Walking isn’t everything.”
She reflected a moment, then said, “I could make choices that would create my future. We are all responsible for our choices and decisions we make.”
Michelle committed to training for Paralympic competition, first in wheelchair basketball, then in wheelchair racing. “Training was full on hard core. I ate the right food, spent hours in the garage where I had stationery rollers for my chair and surrounded myself with people to help me succeed. To get to Olympic competition you need God given talent, but it also takes sweat, tears and pain, pushing yourself past exhaustion. It became my world. For me it was everything. Each day I tried to go faster. Tried to get better. I loved the challenge. Those were some of my best days.”
She met Mark while playing wheelchair basketball. Although able bodied, he was allowed to compete in the integrated sport. “For me it was love at first sight,” she said, and I sensed a smile in her voice. “It took four months before he asked me to marry him. We have a sixteen year old son, Kai.”
Since winning a gold medal in Paralympic basketball and five gold plus a silver in wheelchair racing, Michelle has taken on a new challenge. “I never, never, thought of getting into politics,” she said, seemingly surprised at this new venture. As Minister of Social Development and Social Innovation in the Christy Clark government, she brought in the Single Parent Employment Initiative which provides help to single parents to get off social assistance. “It’s especially important because these parents become positive role models for their children,” she said.
“Would I undo the injury if I could go back in time?” Michelle asked at the end of our conversation. “No. I wouldn’t have had the opportunities to accomplish what I’ve been able to do, and I wouldn’t be where I am today.”