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Paralympic champion Roxon looking to add to legacy in Tokyo

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Thirteen years after making her Paralympic debut in Beijing, Katarina Roxon is still going strong heading into her fourth Games.

Now 28, the proud Newfoundlander from Kippens will be one of 19 Canadians in action during the Tokyo 2020 swimming competition, which runs from Aug. 25 to Sept. 3 at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre.

“Never,” answers a smiling Roxon when asked if she could have ever envisioned going to four Games back in 2008. “For me, when I was younger, I went to my first Games and it was exciting, it was fun, I had a great time. At that moment, I was thinking maybe I’ll do another Games, that’s about it. Nothing was set in stone.

“I would never have thought that I’d be here at 28, still at it. I’m truly grateful that my body can still do this despite being at it for so many years, and that I can still be competitive.”

Roxon’s father Leonard, who doubles as her coach at the Aqua Aces Swim Club in Stephenville, a five-minute drive from Kippens, admits that four Games was not part of the original plan.

“Honestly no. I recall that we were way too excited, immensely grateful, humbled, proud and a myriad of other emotions as parents and as her coach, that she made the team in 2008. We were not thinking about how long she would be competing. That was not one of our thoughts or considerations at that time.”

Longevity is one thing. Remaining competitive in the latter stages of an athletic career is another.

The younger Roxon was on top of the world at Rio 2016 after winning Paralympic gold in the 100-m breaststroke SB8. Three years later, she punched her ticket to Tokyo thanks to an impressive showing at the London 2019 Para Swimming World Championships, claiming silver in her best individual event while also helping Canada to bronze in the 4×100 freestyle relay.

She is currently ranked second in the world in the 100 breaststroke and will be looking to successfully defend her Paralympic title on Aug. 26. The 100 freestyle S9 and 200 individual medley SM9 are also on her schedule in the Japanese capital.

“I’ve always been a competitive person. Even when I was, like, three years old, I was very competitive. I don’t think that’ll ever go. It’s just something that’s part of me, it’s part of who I am. I like to win, and I love to challenge myself.

“Also, swimming is what I’ve been doing for so long. It’s hard for me to imagine doing something else. I love swimming, I love being in the water, I love being around all these people.”

Adds Leonard, “I have always maintained over the years that Katarina is one of the most determined, steel-willed individuals I have ever come across in my life. I do not say this lightly as her father or coach. She just is.”

Even a world pandemic couldn’t deter Roxon’s determination ahead of the Tokyo Games. Although she readily admits the last few months were not all smooth sailing.

“I would not say the past year was smooth at all for me (laughs). It was anything but. It was more like a roller coaster ride. You had your times when it was great, you’re on that peak when you’re doing awesome. Then you start losing your motivation, you go down a bit, and you pick it back up. It was definitely an experience like no other, for sure.

“That being said, having gone through this pandemic, it gives you even more gratification to know that we’re here, and we’re getting ready and we’re going to Tokyo. There are a lot of things to be grateful for in all of this.”

Along with keeping sharp with her swimming in training, Roxon kept herself busy during the pandemic.

She contributed to her community as a spokesperson for the #HealthyMeBetterMe campaign by Sports Newfoundland and Labrador and participated in a virtual edition of SwimForHope, which raised over $50,000 for cancer patients and their families. She is also taking online classes in medical office management from the College of the North Atlantic.

“Keeping busy outside the pool definitely helped,” says Roxon. “It was great to keep my mind off just the training. I mean, obviously Tokyo is the focus, it’s the main goal here, but when you put other things into the picture it gives you a great balance and you see other things as priorities as well. It gave me this very nice, smooth balance, it made everything go a lot easier.”

On the eve of her fourth Games, Roxon has two clear goals for Tokyo.

“I think every athlete dreams of being on that podium. So I’m not going to say I’d be happy with just a best time, because that would be a lie. At the end of the day, I want to be on that podium. That said, I’m 28 years old and I’d love to do a best time as well. So those are my two goals. I’m going to try my best, see how it plays out. Make sure I leave everything I have in that water and have no regrets.”

As a four-time Paralympian and Paralympic champion, the national team veteran is aware of the legacy she has been building over her swimming career.

“I definitely think about that. It’s something I’ve always kind of thought about. Being from Newfoundland and Labrador, it’s a small province, not a lot of people from our province get to say they’re Olympians or Paralympians.

“I want to be able to leave a legacy that people are inspired by, that makes them want to chase their dreams. But not just in sports. I think it’s also so important to be a good person. Actually, one of the people in swimming who showed me, who taught me how to be a nice person was Stephanie Dixon, and now she’s my chef de mission in Tokyo.”

The final word goes to her father and coach.

“Katarina’s legacy will be her impact in sports, in the support given to athletes since 2006 and in Government policies regarding persons with disabilities.

“I am most proud of Katarina’s selflessness and humility. No matter what great things she has achieved in life, being grounded and not changing how she is with others stands out as a shining example of a great attitude that we can all aspire to.”