NEWS
08/28/2011 07:00 EDT | Updated 10/28/2011 05:12 EDT

Wheelchair racer Stilwell has no regrets over decision to return to track

VANCOUVER - When it was first suggested she try wheelchair racing Michelle Stilwell bluntly refused.

Stilwell made excuses. She was retired, having won a gold medal in wheelchair basketball at the 2000 Sydney Paralympics. She wanted to spend time with her husband and young son. She hated training in cold and rain.

But deep down inside Stilwell knew the real reason for her reluctance. Left a quadriplegic following an accident when she was 17, Stilwell didn't want to return to racing on a track because it stirred some old, painful memories.

"Part of that was I ran track in high school," she said in a recent telephone interview from her home in Nanoose Bay, B.C. "It was just a sport I didn't see myself getting into.

"On the anniversary of my injury I used to go out to the track at my high school and sit and have a little time to myself. I know that was an issue."

After some persuading Stilwell changed her mind and has become one of the world's elite racers.

When the 2012 Paralympic Games begin in London a year from Monday, Stilwell will be one of the Canadian medal threats. She won gold in both the 100 and 200 metres at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, setting Games records.

Simply defending her titles in London won't be enough for the 31-year-old Winnipeg native.

"In Beijing, in both my 100 and 200, there were tactical errors that I know I could have done better," she said. "I could have had the world record.

"Heading to London that is something I want. I want it all. I'm a little greedy."

The Canadian team for the London Paralympics won't be selected until next summer, but around 150 athletes are expected to wear the Maple Leaf. The goal is to finish in the top eight nations, based on gold medal count.

The 144-member team in Beijing won 50 medals (19 gold, 10 silver and 21 bronze) to place seventh overall.

Wheelchair racer Chantal Petitclerc was one of the stars in Beijing, winning five gold medals and setting three world records in her final Paralympics. Petitclerc, who doesn't have the use of her legs, raced in a different category than Stilwell.

Canadian swimmers were a tidal wave in the pool, winning seven gold medals. Lauren Barwick of Langley, B.C., won Canada's first Paralympic equestrian gold and added a silver.

On the final day, sailor Paul Tingley took gold by defeating the defending champion from France and was named the flagbearer for the closing ceremonies.

Stilwell has seen a steady growth in recognition and acceptance of the Paralympics. Hosting the 2010 Winter Paralympics in Whistler and Vancouver further raised awareness of disabled athletes.

"The Paralympic movement continues to grow," she said.

"Every time we have a Games . . we get more media coverage. More people are getting excited about it."

More exposure has also increased sponsorship. Stilwell recently signed a major deal that gives her money to help travel and training expenses.

"I think there are more sponsors coming on board and realizing there really isn't a difference between the Paralympic and the Olympics," she said.

"They (Paralympics) have just as much value and can bring just as much inspiration to people, whether they are able-bodied or have a physical disability."

Nicknamed Mikey by friends, Stilwell was thrilled when she made the wheelchair basketball team for the Sydney Paralympics. Being a quadriplegic with limited hand movement, she wasn't as fast and lacked the ball-handling skills of other athletes.

"Making the basketball team was one of my greatest accomplishments," she said. "To have accomplished that goal was huge."

Stilwell decided to retire after Sydney. She wanted to start a family but also was dealing with crushing headaches and persistent nasal problems.

An MRI revealed she had a herniated brain stem which required surgery in 2005.

Around the same time Stilwell was coaching wheelchair basketball. One day she met Peter Lawless, the coach who first suggested she try wheelchair racing.

Lawless was persistent. Stilwell finally agreed to attend a meet.

She competed in a 1,500-metre race which took her about 15 minutes to finish. That's a distance a good racer can cover in about five minutes.

"The amount of time it took, people were probably looking at their watches and going 'is this girl going to get done?"' Stilwell said with a laugh.

"I got beaten by a 13-year-old boy. I felt so slow, so pathetic."

Stilwell's competitive fires were stoked.

"I was pretty much hooked. I was determined that wasn't going to happen again."

Stilwell decided to concentrate on the shorter sprint events.

"The quicker and faster I can get it over with, the happier I am," she said.

By May 2008 Stilwell had set world records in the 100 and 200 metres. Then came the gold medals in Beijing.

"Crossing the finish line and looking up at the (big screen) and seeing Paralympic record flashing, just made it all worth the effort, the sacrifice, the dedication," she said.

Stilwell hasn't slowed down since China.

At the International Paralympic Committee world championships, held in New Zealand in January, she won three gold and a silver, racing just five months after major spine surgery.

Repeating in London won't be easy.

"The depth of competition continues to get stronger," Stilwell said. "I know I can't sit back and rest.

"I want to go into London (and) come out with no regrets. I'm not saying London is going to be my last Paralympics, but it might be. If that's the way it's going to be, I need to know I did everything possible to accomplish that goal."