After winning two more gold medals at the 2016 Paralympics, Michelle Stilwell and her long-time coach Peter Lawless shared a funny moment, one that encapsulates Stilwell’s extraordinary spirit and athletic career. Still basking in the glow of victory, she went on Twitter and her spirits plummeted.

“They’re calling me a goat!” she said dismayed. “I’m not a goat!”
Lawless laughed. “Michelle, it’s a Muhammad Ali reference. GOAT equals Greatest of All Time…”
“Oh,” Stilwell said, now smiling proudly. “I’m a GOAT!”

With seven Paralympic medals, countless world records, and ten world championship titles to her name, as well as being the only female Paralympic athlete in history to have won gold medals in two separate summer sport events, Stilwell is most definitely the greatest of all time. Considering the obstacles she overcame, other superlatives simply don’t do her career justice.

Raised in Altona, Manitoba, Stilwell grew up playing ringette and remembers dreaming while watching Olympic medal ceremonies on TV. At age 17 she fell from a friend’s back while piggyback riding down the stairs, rendering her quadriplegic. Three years of resulting complications, surgeries, and a long rehabilitation ensued. She discovered wheelchair basketball and immediately saw the benefits of sport in her life: “The more I trained, the stronger I got, the more independence I gained.”

Playing against men locally, Stilwell worked up to Manitoba’s provincial team and in 1998 she earned selection to Canada’s women’s national team, coached by fellow 2017 inductee Tim Frick. As the only quadriplegic athlete on the team, as well as any national side in the world, she helped Canada to gold at the 1998 world championships and 2000 Paralympics.

Retiring in 2001 at age 27, she moved to Parksville with husband Mark and son Kai. If an athlete tries a new sport at this point, it’s usually recreational, not competing internationally, and certainly not winning Paralympic medals. This is what sets Stilwell’s career apart. Lawless noticed her fast hand speed at a coaching clinic and convinced her to try wheelchair athletics. Her first time in a race chair at a meet in Duncan she lost over 1500m to a nine-year-old boy, but her competitive fires were stoked and she began training seriously.

From 2005-16, Stilwell ruled the T52 class in world wheelchair athletics. Overcoming more spinal complications and subsequent surgeries, she won 100m and 200m gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics and followed that up with silver and gold at London 2012 and double gold at Rio 2016. At the same time, she won nine more world championship medals (seven gold), set over 20 world records, and won many 10K, half-, and full marathon races in Canada and overseas.

In 2013, Stilwell was elected to BC’s Legislative Assembly as an MLA representing Parksville-Qualicum becoming likely the world’s first active politician to compete at an Olympic or Paralympic Games. She currently serves as Minister for Social Development and Social Innovation.

Written and researched by Jason Beck, Curator of the BC Sports Hall of Fame.