Michelle Stilwell trains at Rotary Bowl Stadium earlier this week. She is heading to Rio de Janeiro to compete in her fourth Paralympic Games. Stilwell will race the 100-metre and 400m events.

Michelle Stilwell trains at Rotary Bowl Stadium earlier this week. She is heading to Rio de Janeiro to compete in her fourth Paralympic Games. Stilwell will race the 100-metre and 400m events.

Veteran Paralympian Michelle Stilwell values opportunity

Michelle Stilwell leaves this week for Rio de Janeiro, where she’ll compete in the 100-metre and 400m races at the Paralympic Games.

She’s been representing her consituents and this month, she’ll be representing all Canadians.

Michelle Stilwell leaves this week for Rio de Janeiro, where she’ll compete in the 100-metre and 400m wheelchair races at the Paralympic Games.

She’s feeling fit and fast.

“I’m feeling like I’m right on track to be able to show up and have the best performance there that I possibly can,” she said.

Stilwell has been to three other Paralympics and has four gold medals and one silver, but these will be her first Games since being elected MLA for Parksville-Qualicum and becoming B.C.’s Minister of Social Development and Social Innovation.

Her political career has had an impact on her athletic pursuits, she said. She feels a little disconnected because she hasn’t been to international competitions or athlete training camps. Instead, she trains alone, early in the morning or late at night, at her fully equipped home gym with its set of rollers.

“Many Paralympians have full-time jobs or full-time schooling where they’re balancing both those worlds, and it’s just the same for me…” Stilwell said. “You’re always striving for excellence and being a world-class athlete is about putting the training in, the hours and hours that are put in prior to going to the Games.”

Stilwell, 42, won her first gold medal in wheelchair basketball in 2000 in Sydney, but gave up that sport due to health concerns. She won gold medals in the 100m and 200m wheelchair sprints in 2008 in Beijing, then earned gold in the 200m and silver in the 100m in 2012 in London.

“Every Games has been a bit of a learning experience. You take away things that you can do better and how you can improve and what you can do differently. I’ve taken those things into my preparation for these Games,” Stilwell said. “I feel relaxed going into these Games and comfortable and confident that I know what to expect.”

There will be some newcomers in some of the adjacent lanes in Rio, but Stilwell expects her main competitors to be familiar ones. She’s thought a lot about her 100m final in London, when she wasn’t 100 per cent focused when the starter’s pistol sounded, slipped on her first push, and spent the rest of the race trying to catch up.

“It’s those moments that you learn from, that you take into improving so that you can be better,” she said. “I’ve spent the last four years trying to figure out ways to prepare myself the best I can so that I can reach the top of the podium in Rio.”

She wants to win gold medals. She has those expectations for herself, she wants to win for the people who want to see her succeed and she wants to do the best she can representing Canada.

“That’s a lot of pressure going in,” she said. “How do you mentally block those thoughts out so that you can focus at the precise moment when the gun goes off, to perform for the less than 20 seconds it takes to finish the 100 metres?”

She looks forward to finding out. Always, the excitement is there, Stilwell said. She considers it an incredible opportunity to be part of Team Canada at the Paralympic Games among 4,000 other athletes from 175 other countries and she embraces the best of the Paralympic values.

“It has that opportunity to empower, especially those with disabilities…” she said. “You think of countries where they come from, poorer nations where opportunities aren’t as great and [now they get] that opportunity to do amazing things.

“Sport has that power to transform, to inspire and to really unite individuals and countries.”

GAME ON … The 400-metre T52 wheelchair race final will be Sept. 10 at 7 a.m. Pacific Time. The 100-metre T52 final is Sept. 17 at 7:05 a.m.

sports@nanaimobulletin.com