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Paralympic champ turned B.C. politician faces her toughest race yet

Michelle Stilwell is about halfway through her talk when she looks out at the crowd and suddenly stops. At this point, the gold-medal-winning Paralympian and would-be B.C. Liberal politician has seemingly cast a spell over her audience. An unnerving quiet has fallen over the room.

Minutes earlier, Ms. Stilwell had described the day in 1992 when, at age 17, she fell off her boyfriend's back and broke her neck. She recalled the doctor telling her she was a paraplegic and would likely never walk again. In an instant her life had changed forever – what would she do?

"I decided I was choosing life," says Ms. Stilwell, addressing a group of realtors from a black wheelchair at the front of the conference hall. "I was not going to let fear stand in the way of my dreams. I said the human spirit can't be paralyzed. I didn't lose the use of my legs – I gained my life."

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Ms. Stilwell is running for the Liberals in the Vancouver Island riding of Parksville-Qualicum, a contest that should test her legendary power to overcome adversity. It's a seat that has been held by the Liberals since 1996 but is now among a number no longer considered safe for the party.

And as former Olympic wrestler Daniel Igali discovered in 2005 when running for the same party, athletic fame cannot shield you from the sometimes fickle affections of the public come election time.

In this campaign, Ms. Stilwell is not just burdened by a public seemingly tired of more than 12 years of Liberal government, but also by a B.C. Conservative Party running highly credible candidates in many areas of the province. The Conservatives' man in Parksville-Qualicum is David Coupland, among the most impressive figures the party has lured to its side. The doctor may not win, but he could siphon off enough votes from the Liberals to allow the NDP to claim victory.

Even the Liberals admit to this split-the-vote worry.

Ms. Stilwell is the type of star candidate few expected the Liberals to be able to attract given their dismal standing in the polls. But being told they don't have a chance is red meat to athletes.

"It drove me to want to do it more," Ms. Stilwell says after her speech. "I believe in what the party stands for so much and in what Christy Clark is doing."

For a political neophyte, Ms. Stilwell has mastered the Liberal talking points. She knows what to say about key issues like debt and can furrow her brow just so when describing how an NDP government would drive the economy off a cliff. As for those polls that say the Liberals are doomed? The only poll that matters is the one on election day, she says.

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She talks earnestly about wanting to create a better future for her son. Close your eyes and you can hear Christy Clark.

Ms. Stilwell has lived in the Parksville-Qualicum area for more than a decade. The people here know her story – how she overcame her disability to develop into an Olympic-calibre wheelchair basketball player before becoming a track-and-field sprint star. She is the only female Paralympic athlete to ever win gold in two separate summer sport events. The charismatic 38-year-old has turned her tale into a motivational speech that is compelling and uplifting. Over the years, she has been cheered on by the same people whose political support she is now seeking.

Getting it, however, might prove more difficult.

"This is going to be a tough fight," says Ms. Stilwell. "But I believe that I bring to the table a unique set of life experiences. I've been through the health-care system in a variety of ways, had multiple spinal surgeries, brain surgery, gave birth to a son who is autistic. It's all brought me a different perspective on life. That's why I'm doing this. After everything I've been given, it's my turn to give something back."

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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