By Jim Morris
A lack of international racing experience isn’t slowing Shelby Newkirk down in the pool.
A rookie on Swimming Canada’s Para-swimming team, Newkirk already holds three national records. At this year’s Speedo Can AM Para-swimming Championships in Windsor, Ont., Newkirk not only set Canadian records in the S7 50 and 100-metre backstroke, she also swam the fastest times in the world this year.
The 21-year-old from Saskatoon, who has a neurological disorder called dystonia, didn’t begin competitive swimming until she was 15. While most of her competitors have spent more time on the international stage, Newkirk compensates with training and technique.
“I’m a bit new to the sport,” she said. “When I get into a competition it’s going to be all the training I’ve done. You can’t control everybody else, you can just control yourself and how you race.
“I’m really just going to focus on getting in the water and having the best race I can possibly can.”
Vince Mikuska, Swimming Canada’s senior coach of the Paralympic program, said Newkirk has plenty of potential and has been well prepared by her coach Eric Kramer in Saskatoon.
“She’s very coachable,” said Mikuska. “She has a very good relationship with her coach Eric Kramer.
“She has lots of things to work on and get better at. She’s swimming very well already.”
Newkirk spends a lot of time training with able-bodied swimmers with her current club in Saskatoon. Spending the summer in the water with other Para-swimmers, especially fellow S7 athletes like Paralympic medallists Katarina Roxon and Tess Routliffe, has proven beneficial.
“I’m always pushing myself to be as fast as the able-bodied kids,” said Newkirk. “Now being able to swim on the national team . . . it’s really cool having people that can relate to you and understand you.
“They can kind of give you tips. I swim one-armed fly, so Kat was able to give me some tips for that. It’s really cool having that bond and that shared experience.”
Roxon said Newkirk has easily made the transition to the national team.
“She’s really easy to get along with,” said Roxon, a gold medallist in the 100-m breaststroke at the Rio 2016 Paralympics. “She will go with the flow, not make a fuss about anything.
“She’s a strong swimmer. She’s fast. I’m really excited to see her swim this year. I’m going to guess she has a bit of nerves going on right now. She is handling it very well. She is very composed.”
Newkirk grew up in an athletic family playing basketball and volleyball and running track. She was 13 when she noticed her right foot was inverting and her toes had started to curl.
Soon after she was diagnosed with dystonia, a progressive disorder similar to Parkinson’s that affects movement, balance and coordination.
“After my dystonia started I just sat around, wasn’t sure what to do, what I could do,” she said.
“I didn’t realise it would be a disability, I didn’t realize it was permanent. I didn’t realize it was progressive. I think the fact I didn’t know at the beginning was a good thing because I don’t think I would have been able to handle everything at once.”
The family was living in LaSalle, Man., then, about 30 kilometres outside of Winnipeg. Newkirk’s mother happened to meet Karen Williams, coach of the Para Storm Swim Club. Williams suggested Newkirk try swimming.
“I met the team and really started feeling at home,” said Newkirk.
She credits Williams with helping her come to terms with her impairment.
“You have to learn to deal with it, learn to roll with it, also learn how to adapt,” said Newkirk. “My coach was really good with helping me through that.
“I’ve come a long way to being able to be proud of who I am and my disability. I also advocate for others who have dystonia and educate. Not a lot of people know what dystonia is. It’s not the most common thing.”
Newkirk was looking forward to competing at her first World Para Swimming Championships later this month in Mexico City. With the world championships postponed due the recent devastating earthquake, Swimming Canada will host the Canadian Open, October 2-4, at the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre.
The Open will provide an opportunity for all of the Canadian athletes who were going to compete at the World Para Swimming Championships to race in the same competition window as the world championships would have occurred. It will also provide an opportunity for athletes to post times to be considered for 2018 Commonwealth Games selection.
It’s been a busy summer for Newkirk. She competed at the Canada Games in Winnipeg where she won six medals, four of them gold, and was named Saskatchewan’s flagbearer for the closing ceremony.
When the games ended she joined the Para-swimming team for training camps in Flagstaff, Az., and Santa Fe, NM.
“It’s been so much fun so far getting to hang out with the team and training with them,” said Newkirk. “I am just really experiencing everything that I can.”