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Para-swimmer Shelby Newkirk thrives while listening to a different beat

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Jim Morris

Shelby Newkirk is one of those people who hears a different rhythm, literally.

The 22-year-old from Saskatoon describes herself as an odd ball. Her coach at the Saskatoon Laser Swim Club calls her “determined, stubborn.”

However you try to define her, Newkirk heads to the Pan Pacific Para Swimming Championships in Cairns, Australia, riding a wave of confidence.

Each pool session will be live streamed on the Swimming Australia Website, Swimming Australia YouTube page  and the Australian Dolphins Facebook page. Swimming Canada will also have updates on Twitter throughout the meet.

Newkirk broke her own world record in the S7 100-metre backstroke twice in one day at the Canadian Swimming Trials in Edmonton, lowering the mark to one minute, 20.13 seconds.

Talk about sending a message.

“It’s definitely a big confidence boost,” said Newkirk, who at 13 was diagnosed with generalized dystonia, a progressive neurological disorder similar to Parkinson’s that affects movement, balance and coordination.

“I’ve been going a lot faster splits this year than I was last year, so I knew I could. To be able to do that at trials was great.”

The pink headphones that Newkirk wears around the pool stand out, but what really separates her from other members of the Para-swimming team is her taste in music. “I mostly listen to country music,” she said with a grin. “I guess it’s from my Saskatchewan roots. I definitely am not the one to pick the playlists most of the time just because they don’t quite get the songs.”

When she needs to relax, or relieve some stress, Newkirk can isolate herself from the outside world. Kramer expects that’s what she will do in Australia. “Shelby is just wired differently than everybody else,” he said. “Once she puts her headphones on she bebops, she gets into her thing. She has the capability of just really getting into her bubble.

Newkirk’s dystonia also means no two days are alike when it comes to training. “Every day is a different Shelby,” said coach Eric Kramer. “You have to adapt. She keeps me on my toes.”

Growing up Newkirk played basketball, volleyball and ran track. Now she’s learning to deal with her new normal.

“My body is always progressing,” she said. “I feel better in the water than I do on land. With my disability we have tried to discover what works and what doesn’t. It’s been a pretty good learning curve for us because there are not a lot of people with my type of dystonia, especially that swim. We kind of had to figure it out for ourselves.”

What works one day for Newkirk might not the next.

“Every now and then we have to change my stroke,” she said. “With my backstroke my legs are starting to do something different. With my fly I’m having trouble locking my elbow. It’s just some of the things I used to be able to do and now I have to adapt because I can’t do them anymore.”

Kramer said he’s learned to shape Newkirk’s training to fit her ever shifting condition. “As a coach I have to be extremely creative,” he said.

The Para Pan Pacs will be Newkirk’s first major international meet.

“She has that drive inside. I think it will be good for her,” Kramer said.

Newkirk was part of the Canadian team that spent several weeks training together last year for the World Para Swimming Championships in Mexico City. When the championships were postponed due to a devastating earthquake, she swam at the Canadian Open in Toronto where she set the 100-m backstroke world record.

Vince Mikuska, Swimming Canada’s senior coach for the Paralympic Program, said the time spent with the team last year was valuable for Newkirk’s progression. “She got well versed in what our expectations were around the national team, the people that are on the team, how we do things,” he said.

Over the last few years Newkirk has become accustomed to wrestling with changing parameters. She’ll take whatever happens at the Para Pan Pacs in stride.

“As my coach always says, it doesn’t matter the name of the meet, you just do what you’ve got to do,” she said. “That’s going to be the goal. Just go in, know what I can do, swim my best and not worry about the other people.”