Paralympian, Rowboat Maker Team Up For Fitness

Paralympic gold medallist Michelle Stilwell, of Nanoose Bay, has gone from track to sea thanks to the innovative team at Victoria’s Whitehall Boats, who custom-fitted a Whitehall Tango 17 to give the B.C. sports star her first-ever open-water rowing experience.

On March 12, Stilwell and Canadian Olympic rowing champion Adam Kreek — who are both ambassadors for ActNow, a provincial initiative to encourage British Columbians to become more physically active — were able to team up for a rowing session because Stilwell was using custom-made oar handles designed by Whitehall founder Harold Aune, who also created a special seat with extra back support for Stilwell. Aune says Kreek came up with the idea to use a Whitehall boat to demonstrate its suitability for fitness as well as adaptive rowing

“Finding a fitter athlete who is so devoted to getting people more active would be hard to find,” says Aune. “We are happy to give her and others with mobility challenges a chance to experience rowing. Recently, we even worked with a blind woman who has taken up rowing.”

Stilwell, 35, was a double gold medalist in wheelchair track at the Beijing Paralympics. She is also the world record holder in the 100- and 200-metre wheelchair track events.

A quadriplegic since the age of 17, when she fell while being piggybacked by a friend, Stilwell maintains a busy schedule that includes training and competing, marriage and a son, and motivational speaking. In her talks, she emphasizes perseverance, overcoming barriers, and chasing dreams. She also is an ambassador for the Rick Hansen Foundation.

An icon in her sport, she is the only female Paralympic athlete to have won gold in two separate summer sport events. At the 2008 Beijing Games, she won gold in the 100- and 200-metre events in her class. Eight years earlier, she won a gold in Paralympic Games basketball at the 2000 Sydney Games, when she was the only female quadriplegic on the Canadian team.

Circumstance may have put Stilwell in a chair, but she does not take life sitting down. She is married with a young son, Kai, whom she home-schools, and an incredibly full and active lifestyle makes her a fitting spokeswoman for ActNow, and an ideal candidate to showcase how local companies such as Whitehall are adapting their products to serve people regardless of their physical abilities.

“The Whitehall Spirit Tango 17 is an ideal design for those of us who are handicapped due loss of leg power and walking abilities to experience the many benefits of slide-seat rowing,” says Aune.

“The Tango 17 is fitted with lightweight carbon fiber sculling oars identical to a competition racing shell, but the boat itself is stable, seaworthy, and virtually unsinkable. Fitted with an adaptive rowing seat, it enables adaptive rowing skills to be easily and quickly acquired with the trainer located right in the boat.”

He adds, “Whitehall Rowing & Sail and the Whitehall Spirit Rowing Club of Victoria are actively promoting rowing for anyone, young or old, who wishes to row for exercise, fitness, enjoyment, and fun, whatever their physical condition.”