By Jim Morris
Not everyone can say they have a highway named after them. Then again, few people can claim to have won a Paralympic gold medal.
The last year has been a whirlwind of emotions for Katarina Roxon. She returned home to Newfoundland & Labrador a hero last September after winning a gold medal in the SB8 100-metre breaststroke at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.
A cheering crowd greeted Roxon at the airport when she arrived in St. John’s. In her honour, Route 490 in western Newfoundland was renamed Roxon Way. It’s one of two roads leading from the Trans-Canada Highway toward Roxon’s hometown of Kippens. The 24-year-old Canadian record holder would spend time at parties and speaking to groups. It was a time to celebrate her victory with family and friends, especially her father Leonard, her long-time coach and the man who played an important role in her becoming a champion.
“All that was great,” she said. “I enjoyed myself. I love being able to talk to kids, talk to organizations.”
The golden afterglow from Rio sometimes made it difficult for Roxon to focus as she began preparing for a new season.
“Coming off Rio you are on such a high,” said Roxon. “Trying to get back to being motivated and focused, I had a tough time. Especially finding my motivation early in the season, it was pretty difficult for me.”
The time Roxon spent training at home under her father’s guidance helped make her physically strong and improved her technical skills. Spending time with teammates on the national Para-swimming team while attending training camps in Flagstaff, Az., and Santa Fe, NM. have helped sharpen Roxon mentally.
Spending time with teammates on the national Para-swimming team while attending training camps in Flagstaff, Az., and Santa Fe, NM., have helped sharpen Roxon mentally.
“Now I’m back with the team, back to training harder, back in the same zone as I was last year,” she said. “It’s getting a little bit easier getting that motivation back.
“I’m doing really well in training. I’m really focused. From where I was at the beginning of the year, it’s a huge improvement.”
Vince Mikuska, Swimming Canada’s Senior Coach Paralympic Program, said a long talk he had with Roxon in the spring seemed to help her turn a corner.
“We talked about being focused on what she can control and just trying to get better every day,” he said. “Some of the other external things, just let them be.”
Being in the water with other national Para-swimmers helped rekindle Roxon’s competitive spirit.
“It’s always a boost for her to come in and get with the team and on the same page with a group of people who are all going in the same direction,” said Mikuska.
Roxon has discovered along with the honor, winning a Paralympic gold carries great responsibility. Those same people who cheered for her in Rio will be watching over the next three years leading to the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.
“It’s a good and bad pressure,” said Roxon, who was born with her left arm missing below her elbow. “Now you have all these people who didn’t know who I was, who didn’t know what Para-sport was. Now you have people looking up to you, following you on all the social media, wanting you to do well.
“It’s nice to know that there are actual people out there, especially from small Newfoundland, that want you do well and are cheering you on.”
Roxon said there’s a “balancing act” between drawing attention to Para-sports and continuing to reach personal goals.
“It’s a good thing that people are getting to know what Para-sport is,” she said. “The world is changing and Para-sport is becoming a lot more important, which it needs to be.
“It’s a good and bad knowing all these people are watching you, wanting you to do well. When you don’t swim your best it’s like you are letting people down. When you do swim amazing, then all these people are happy for you. It’s like they are on the journey with you.”
Roxon saw another side of sport this summer when she attended the North American Indigenous Games in Toronto as part of the mission staff working for Team Newfoundland & Labrador. She worked basically as a team manager for swimming plus also helped with sports like track and field, badminton and wrestling.
After years of travelling on national Para-swim teams she got some insight into all the behind-the-scenes work done for the athletes. Suddenly Roxon had a better understand of the work done by Emma Van Steen, the Para-swimming team manager, and other officials.
“Oh my goodness,” said Roxon. “Two days into the Games (and) I was already stressed out. I have such an appreciation for her and all the rest of the staff members we deal with. It was a huge eye-opener.”
Her experience in Toronto also taught her to have more patience should something go wrong on a swimming trip.
“Now I know I have to take a moment and let people do their job and everything will work out well,” she said.