Of all the athletes set to make their World Para Swimming Championships debut in London, it’s safe to say very few boast a resume as impressive as Shelby Newkirk’s.
The 23-year-old from Saskatoon will be one of 18 Canadians competing from Sept. 9-15 at the London Aquatics Centre, one of the main venues of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
“I made the world championship team two years ago, when unfortunately we didn’t end up going,” says Newkirk, referring to 2017 edition of the event which was set to take place in Mexico City but was postponed due to a devastating earthquake. “It’s so exciting to be on this team this year. I can’t even really put it into words. I’m always very excited to be able to represent Canada, and now to do it at worlds is going to be amazing.”
While Newkirk got a somewhat late start to her swimming career, one could say she has made up for it in recent years… and then some.
After playing “every sport imaginable when I was younger” and later focusing on basketball, volleyball and track, she only got into swimming in 2012, a few years after being diagnosed with generalized dystonia, a progressive neurological disorder similar to Parkinson’s that affects movement, balance and coordination.
Now, heading into her maiden world championship appearance, the backstroke specialist holds the S7 world record in the 50-m back, the Americas standard in the 200 and the Canadian mark in her main event, the 100.
Those performances greatly contributed to back-to-back Swimming Canada Female Para-swimmer of the Year awards in 2017 and 2018.
In the UK’s capital, Newkirk is set to compete in the 100-m backstroke S7, in addition to the 50 and 100-m freestyle S7 and 100-m breaststroke SB6.
Over the past 22 months, she has lowered the 100-m back S7 world record on four separate occasions, most recently on April 3 at the Canadian Trials in Toronto thanks to a time of 1:19.99. That latest effort was broken the very next day, however, by the United States’ Julia Gaffney, who clocked 1:19.47 at a World Series event in Indianapolis.
“I’m definitely looking to get that one back,” says Newkirk, who trains at the Saskatoon Laser Swim Club with coach Eric Kramer. “It’s going to be really fun trying to do that at world championships.”
Newkirk and Gaffney, who will represent the USA in London, have developed a friendly rivalry over the past year.
“I met Julia last year in Australia, at the Pan Pacific Championships, she’s such a nice person. We swam next to each other over there, it was really fun. I was just off my world record time but I was able to win gold in that race. It was very exciting.
“I like when there is strong competition because it makes it that much more exciting. I’m a very competitive person, so to have that kind of swimmers around me definitely helps.”
The 2018 Pan Pacific Para Swimming Championships, held last August in Cairns, were Newkirk’s first major international meet and she made the most of it, helping the Canadian 4×100-m medley relay claim bronze in addition to her individual triumph in the 100-m backstroke.
Since the start of her relatively short career in the pool, the University of Saskatchewan education student has made a habit of shining on the big stage.
She set her first world record, in the 100-m back, at the 2017 Canadian Open in Toronto, the event that was organized for Canadian Para-swimmers when the Mexico City worlds were postponed.
Her world record time in the 50-m back came at the 2018 World Para Swimming World Series in Berlin. She then completed her “backstroke hat trick” at the Canadian Trials in April when she set a world mark in the 200, a feat that has since been surpassed by Switzerland’s Nora Meister, another London-bound rival.
“Before I set my first world record, I had broken the Americas records in the 100 and 50m back a few weeks before, so I knew I was close. But it was my first year on the team, I was very new to it all, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Because of the nature of the Canadian Open, we didn’t have prelims, just finals, so I knew I only had the one shot. When I touched the wall and realized I got it, it was just so exciting to see my time on the scoreboard, so amazing to see all the hard work paying off.
“Breaking a world record definitely doesn’t get old. I’m still as excited every single time. When you do it, you’re thinking ‘Ok, this is the fastest anybody has ever gone’. At first, I didn’t really think that I could go faster because I had already gone faster than anybody else. So to be able to push it and keep lowering that time in the 100 over the past two years has definitely been amazing.”
For the upcoming worlds, Newkirk is confident but shows great respect for her competition.
“When it comes to world records or gold medals, you can’t really control what anybody else is going to do. I’m going to work and focus on my own technique, see what I, personally, can do. For me, if I see that the work I put in the pool is showing in my times, then that will be a successful championship.”
LONDON 2019: The 2019 World Para Swimming Championships, which run from Sept. 9-15 at the London Aquatics Centre, will serve as the first qualifying event for the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo. Webcast will be available on the Canadian Paralympic Committee and Swimming Canada Facebook Live platforms. Shelby Newkirk is set to compete in the 50-m freestyle S7, 100-m freestyle S7, 100-m backstroke S7 and 100-m breaststroke SB6.