British Columbia·In Depth

World record-setter politician aims for Paralympic gold

Three-time wheelchair racing gold medallist Michelle Stilwell is one of Canada’s most celebrated Paralympians, she also has a full-time job as a member of B.C. Premier Christy Clark's cabinet.

B.C. Minister of Social Development Michelle Stilwell a medal contender at her 4th Paralympics

Three-time Paralympic gold medalist Michelle Stilwell is headed to Rio as a favorite on the track. (Chris Corday/CBC)

It's in Michelle Stilwell's nature to go fast. World-record fast. 

The B.C. Minister of Social Development flies through the hallways of British Columbia's legislature in her wheelchair leaving staff and journalists in her wake. But Stilwell's speed shouldn't come as any surprise to those that know her.

The three time wheelchair racing gold medalist is one of Canada's most celebrated Paralympians.

In order to compete on the track in her fourth Paralympic games, this September in Rio, she's taking a break from her full-time job as a member of B.C. Premier Christy Clark's cabinet.
Stilwell is a rare two-sport gold medalist in both wheelchair basketball and wheelchair racing. (Chris Corday/CBC)

"In the legislature I have been known to take out a few people coming around the corner," Stilwell told CBC News during a recent training session on the track at the University of Victoria. 

"People are telling me to slow down. It's just my nature and I'd always got about 50 things on my to do list and it's how fast can I get things done because I want to accomplish so much and I have so much I want to get done."
Michelle Stilwell has been a member of the B.C. legislature since 2013. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

The next thing on that to do list for the 'Minister of Speed', as one headline writer put it, is another gold medal.

What many have a hard time getting their head around is what continues to motivate the 42 year-old who has achieved so much both on and off the track.

'I always had the clock'

Stilwell was first elected as the Parksville-Qualicum MLA in 2013, following the Paralympics in London, and decided to continue training and competing while balancing a job that she describes as 24/7.
Michelle Stilwell celebrates after winning the women's 200m T52 final race at the 2012 Paralympics in London. (Canadian Press)

"I think it's just always striving to push myself to see if I can do better. It's something that has been inside of me since I was a little girl," said Stilwell.

"Always challenging myself, timing myself whether it was biking to school. Biking to work, or running somewhere, I always had the clock."
Stilwell has faced pressure to leave the Paralympics behind and focus on her political career. (Chris Corday/CBC)

As a kid, Stilwell didn't dream of the Paralympics. At age 17, she broke her back after falling down a flight of stairs while piggybacking on a friend, just three weeks before her grade 12 graduation.

Paralympic journeys

Her first Paralympic sport was wheelchair basketball, where she won a gold medal as part of the Canadian team at the 2000 Sydney Paralympics.

Then she transitioned to the track, where she holds three world records in the 100, 200 and 800 metres in the T52 class.

T52 athletes have full use of their arms, but lack muscle power in their hands and fingers, and have no lower body function.
Stilwell was a gold medal winner at the Para Pan American Games in Toronto. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

As the gold medals started piling up at competitions around the world, politics came calling and an opportunity to run for the B.C. Liberals on Vancouver Island.

"It's about using my life journey and my life experience to help implement change and use my voice to help those around me and create a better community," said Stilwell.
Stilwell celebrates her gold medal performance in the 200m T52 Final at the London 2012 Paralympic Games. (Phillip MacCallum/Canadian Paralympic Committee)

"The job is 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, there is no turning it off. I can't remember the last time I had a true vacation. When I go away the email and the phones come with me."

Inspiration for B.C. Premier

To manage the rigorous demands of serving constituents but also running the social development ministry has meant putting in place some time saving measures.

That has included moving rollers, a stationary training device for wheelchair athletes, to her legislative office.  

It also includes a 5:30 or 6am wake up call, so that the rolling, showering and prepping for work are all done by the time governing duties kick in at 9am.
Michelle Stilwell became a minister in Christy Clark's government in 2015. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

"It has allowed me to cutout some of the time it takes to train, there is no travel time to get to a track," she said.

"I know my getting up everyday and training is enabling me to do my job better. It's a stress reliever, the job I have is pretty stressful."

The work ethic has clearly caught the eye of her boss.

"The woman is just unbelievable," said B.C. Premier Christy Clark.

"This time she tells me she is aiming for gold, most of us couldn't hope to get close to that and she is doing it at the same time that she is a minister, that she is a mother, a wife. Just an incredible inspiration for all of us."
Stilwell says her husband Mark and son Kai are her inspiration as an athlete. (Michelle Stilwell)

Stilwell herself says her inspiration comes from her role as mother and wife.

The Paralympian acknowledges that her husband Mark covers the household duties while she travels for both work and sport carrying the brunt of the load with their 15 year old son son Kai.

The couple are often spotted on date night at political fundraisers rather than out for dinner or at the movies.

'She's the best that has ever lived'

At the age of 42 and with so many other things on her plate the thought would be that Stilwell would start regressing. But her long time coach Peter Lawless says she continues to put up good times and cement her legacy.

"She is the best that has ever lived. World record, that's what it means. You're faster than anyone in your class that has ever lived. That is fast," said Lawless.
Stilwell's coach Paul Lawless expects Stilwell will contend for yet another gold in Rio. (Chris Corday/CBC)

Stilwell even says with a chuckle she has Tokyo, Japan, the host of the 2020 Paralympics on her mind as well.

A Paralympics at 46 years old would seem near impossible. But with an athlete as driven as Stilwell, it's hard not to take it seriously.
Stilwell says she hasn't ruled out yet another journey to the Paralympics for Canada. (Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters)

With files from Chris Brown and Chris Corday