VICTORIA â€” A second place finish at the Paralympic Games marks a superhuman effort for most people, but winning a silver in London wasn’t good enough for Michelle Stilwell.
She says the silver in the 100 metres wheelchair race at the 2012 Games was a career low point.
Stilwell, one of the world’s most decorated Paralympic athletes and the first Canadian Paralympian to win gold in two different sports, announced her retirement Wednesday night after a stellar athletic career, winning seven Paralympic medals, including six golds, and numerous world championship titles.
“Most people would say, ‘How can you not be happy with a silver medal,'” Stilwell said in an interview before her announcement. “But when you know you are capable of achieving gold and you come back with silver, knowing it was 100 per cent your fault and after 1,760 days of preparation for a less than 20-second event, it’s hard to take.”
She said she slipped at the start of the race and it cost her the gold medal.
“In 100 metres you need to be focused and my head wasn’t where it needed to be,” said Stilwell, who is also the Liberal member of the B.C. legislature for the Parksville-Qualicum riding on Vancouver Island and a member of Premier Christy Clark’s cabinet. “I let my country down. I let my family down. I let my supporters and sponsors down. That’s hard to carry.”
But Stilwell, 42, was back on top of the podium last summer, winning two gold medals for Canada at the Rio Paralympics. She raced to victory in both the 100 metres and 400 metres.
Nothing could be sweeter at that moment than hearing O Canada and having the gold around her neck, she said.
Stilwell, her voice cracking, said the victory marked her last stand in a career where she approached every race as if it was her last.
“Over Christmas, I actually for the first time went on a family vacation that wasn’t sport related,” she said. “I actually got to spend time with my boys and enjoyed those moments and realized that is something I want to do more of.”
Stilwell, who was born in Winnipeg, said relaxing with her husband Mark and son Kai on a beach in Mexico was when she knew she could retire.
“I feel like it’s the right time and I’ve done what I want to achieve at the Paralympic level,” she said. “It’s a good time to look ahead and prepare for what the future holds.”
Stilwell’s immediate future involves fighting a spring provincial election campaign.
She is the minister of social development and social innovation, a post that often thrusts her to the forefront of funding and social issues involving disabled and vulnerable people.
Stilwell said the apparatus she set up in her cabinet office at the legislature to work out is gone.
“The best thing about the last few months is I’m training when I want, when I can and how much I can,” she said. “I’m not feeling guilty if I didn’t get the workout in.”
She became a quadriplegic at 17 when she fell during a piggyback accident. Dropping sports was never an option for the lifelong athlete.
Her medal haul started in 1998 when Stilwell was a member of the world champion Canadian women’s wheelchair basketball team, which won gold at the 2000 Sydney Games. But health problems associated with her spinal cord injury forced Stilwell to leave wheelchair basketball.
She turned to wheelchair racing and won two golds at the Beijing Paralympics, gold and silver at the London Games and the two golds at Rio. Stilwell won world championships in France and New Zealand.
Stilwell said athletics has moulded her life and helped her through adversity.
“Overall, if I was to say what I am most proud of, I think it’s just the never giving up with all the setbacks with my medical condition,” she said.
Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press