What happens after you win two gold medals and set a pair of records?
Michelle Stilwell pondered those questions in the aftermath of the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing. The wheelchair sprinter from Nanoose Bay, B.C., had won the 100 and 200 metres and set Games records in both.
She had to decide what would fuel her engine for London in 2012? Training “not to lose” didn’t seem fun.
Stilwell and her coach Peter Lawless decided she would chase a world record in the 400, which then meant shaving about eight seconds off her best time.
Stilwell achieved the 400 WR this year, with a time of one minute 5.41 seconds Feb. 18 in Sydney, Australia.
The pursuit of that mark floated her other boats — the 100 and 200. She lowered her own world record in the 100 in Windsor, Ont., in July, as well as bettering her world record in the 200 in Switzerland in May.
Stilwell won’t race the 400 in London. The event was on the 2008 menu in Beijing, but it’s not on London’s program in Stilwell’s T52 classification (quadriplegic).
Nevertheless, the effort required to chase down the world record in the 400 has prepared Stilwell well for the 100 and 200 in London.
“It is true, I needed something to chase after Paralympic records and double gold,” Stilwell says. “That is how I work. I need a challenge. At the time, it felt so very far from attainable.
“Even though I will not race the 400 metres in London, the training has absolutely helped. Really, how could it not? The records continue to break not just because of the training but from the preparation put into every little detail.”
Lawless says the 400 kept his athlete motivated and hungry.
“Status quo is not attractive,” he says. “That’s why we chose the goal of the 400-metre world record.
“It took us four years to get it. I’m really glad in retrospect that we did choose that. It was hard. She was well off way back then.”
Like a rower chasing that elusive perfect stroke, Stilwell aims for both power and precision in propelling her chair.
“Quadriplegic doesn’t actually mean four limbs paralyzed,” she explains. “It means four limbs affected. I have bicep and tricep muscles and it’s my hand and wrist function that are my limitations.
“It’s a misconception in wheelchair racing we push the wheels. We actually punch down on them and flick our hands back to keep the driving force. I use a lot of shoulder muscles, trap [trapezius] and back.”
Stilwell has given every indication she’s ready to defend her 200-metre title Saturday and her 100 on Sept. 5.
At July’s Boiling Point Wheelchair Classic in Windsor, she beat American rivals Cassie Mitchell and Kerry Morgan by over two seconds in both the 100 and 200. Stilwell’s’s time of 18.67 seconds in the 100 was a world record.
“We went out to send a message and the message is ‘You’re racing for second,“’ Lawless declared. “Message received.”
Stilwell, 38, says she and husband Mark will postpone celebrating their 15th anniversary, which falls on Friday, the day before her first race in London. They met in 1996 while playing wheelchair basketball.
He’s able-bodied and was playing for Saskatchewan, while the Winnipeg-born Stilwell was a member of the Manitoba team. The couple have a son, 11-year-old Kai. He was born after Stilwell completed her psychology degree at the University of Calgary and the couple moved to Vancouver Island.
At age 17, Stilwell fell backwards onto basement stairs while riding piggy-back on a friend. Her neck struck the stairs, rendering her a quadriplegic.
She’s won Paralympic gold in two different summer sports as she was also a member of Canada’s victorious women’s wheelchair basketball team in Sydney in 2000.
“I was introduced to wheelchair basketball when I was still in the rehabilitation hospital,” Stilwell says. “I definitely owe a lot to wheelchair basketball because it made me stronger, more independent and I learned so much from the girls on my team about living life with a disability.”
Complications from her spinal injury forced her to retire from the national basketball team, but Lawless spotted her in a pick-up game at B.C.’s Douglas College in 2004.
He observed that Stilwell had quick hands for a “quad”. A coach of other wheelchair racers, Lawless launched a relentless campaign to get Stilwell into a racing chair.
“Can you believe that? Nice name for a lawyer,” Stilwell laughs. “I always tease him because he emailed me so much it was harassment, but the charges never stuck because he’s such a good lawyer. He’s a good guy.”
Stilwell was initially reluctant to go back to the track because she’d run track before her accident. When she finally caved in the face of Lawless’s persistence, she was beaten by a 12-year-old boy in her first wheelchair race.
“I decided that was never going to happen again,” Stilwell recalls.
Attempting to be the best in the world in a sport when you’ve already been that in another sport takes courage and fortitude, Lawless says. And Stilwell went from the social sport of basketball to the solitary pursuit of wheelchair racing.
“You start all over. You knew what it was like to be a champion, but sure as heck weren’t one right away,” he points out. “To start at the bottom and put that work in to go for that goal you don’t know if you can achieve again, I think it’s the again part that’s remarkable about Michelle.
“It’s tough in winter training in your basement, in the cold or if it is raining, to go do a two-hour ride alone. It’s easy to race and that’s true of all sport. The racing and the competition is the fun stuff. It’s the slogging it out at oh-dark hundred is the hard stuff.”
When she isn’t training, travelling and racing, Stilwell plays board games and cards with her son. She recently bought a hand cycle so the family can all go for bike rides.
“[Kai] loves jumping on the trampoline and going for bike rides and swimming and running and a lot of things I obviously can’t do with him. He’s happy to have dad who does those things all the time,” Stilwell says. “Mark is an incredible husband, he’s very supportive of me and take on the role of daddy day-care.
“I’m definitely the mother hen. I keep things organized, keep the calendar and the calendar is God.”
“I try to make it easy on Mark. Kai is autistic. He’s home schooled and [we] have a lot of tutors who come in and support workers that come in,” she adds. “I do all the schedules, billing and invoicing. I don’t sleep a lot. I use every spare moment to do those things. If you want it bad enough, you’ll make it happen.”
Mark, Kai and a clan of about 23 Stilwell supporters will be in London to cheer Stilwell on. They were all contemplating wearing clown wigs at Olympic Stadium.
“So it will be easy to find each other and easy for me and fun,” Stilwell explains. “It’s supposed to be fun. It can’t all be serious.”