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Swimming Canada – The lessons learned were maybe more valuable than the medals Shelby Newkirk won this summer in her first major international competition.

Newkirk returned from the Pan Pacific Para Swimming Championships in Cairns, Australia, with a gold medal in the 100-metre backstroke and a bronze from the 4×100-m medley relay. During the year Newkirk broke the world record in the S7 100-m backstroke three times, including twice on one day at the 2018 Canadian Swimming Trials.

Newkirk’s performances have been recognized by Swimming Canada, earning her the Female Para-swimmer of the Year for 2018. It’s the second consecutive year the 22-year-old from Saskatoon has won the award.

“This means so much to me,” 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 honestly wasn’t expecting it.

“I knew I had a really good meet at trials, but Australia was a little bit trying for me. I really tried to persevere. Having this recognition is absolutely amazing.”

Newkirk, who trains with coach Eric Kramer at the Saskatoon Laser Swim Club, didn’t begin competitive swimming until six years ago. Cairns was her first taste of a major international meet.

Dealing with the travel and environmental changes – particularly for somebody whose body fluctuates day to day due to the dystonia – were important lessons for future events like the 2019 World Para Swimming Championships beginning in July in Kuching, Malaysia, and the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics.

“The flight to Australia was the longest flight I have ever been on,” said Newkirk. “There was a lot going on there, going into such hot weather. This summer will be similar where it’s another long trip, another super-hot environment and it’s going to be outdoors.

“We’re working on learning. Every day is different for me. We’re working on finding those strategies now. I’m working with my coaches and all of Team Canada to help make this a successful summer.”

Vince Mikuska, senior coach for the Paralympic program, said everyone involved with Newkirk learned something this summer.

“Going in we thought we knew things,” said Mikuska. “We found out there was a lot of things we didn’t know. The travelling will not lessen over the next two years. We’ll just be honing our approach to Shelby and getting her the things she needs to be successful.”

While the 100-m backstroke is Newkirk’s premier event, she is testing the waters in other strokes.

At the 2018 Trials in Edmonton she won silver in the 100-m freestyle and bronze in the 50-m butterfly.

“I’d like to expand my race resume and be able to swim more events,” said Newkirk.

“I’m really happy with how my freestyle is starting to look. We’ve done a lot of big stroke changes.

I think I can be a contender if training keeps going the way it is.”

Mikuska said since Newkirk is new to the sport, she’s still experimenting.

“She’s another one that has made a lot of technical progress the last couple of years,” he said.

“Because of her relative inexperience as a swimmer she still has areas she can open up.”

When Newkirk isn’t training, she works with the Laser’s swimming lesson program. She also is involved in Laps of Love, a non-profit campaign to increase awareness of dystonia and raise funds through swimming 10,000 laps.

“It’s absolutely incredible, getting to share my story about living with dystonia,” said Newkirk. “It’s not a super common thing so any awareness we can raise is absolutely amazing.

“We want everybody to have a chance to swim and experience the love for swimming that we have. We want to show people if you have dystonia you can still swim and do these things. We also want to increase (awareness) for the entire Para community and help Para-swimming become bigger in Canada and hopefully internationally as well.”

Away from the pool, Newkirk is in her third year of education at the University of Saskatchewan and plans to become a teacher. She also is majoring in kinesiology.

“I’m trying to bring more adaptive sport into school and create more of an inclusive curriculum for physical education.”

If that’s not enough, Newkirk has turned her passion for crocheting into her own business called Crafty Prairie Girl where she sells custom made hats online.

When Newkirk first began competitive swimming she found crocheting as a way to relax while waiting for her event.

“One of my first big swim meets was in Minnesota,” she said. “I sat there on the pool deck crocheting away. I got quite a few strange looks.”

Nathan White
Senior manager, Communications, Swimming Canada
Gestionnaire supérieur des communications, Natation Canada
t. +1 613-260-1348 x2002 | m. +1 613-866-7946 |