Saskatchewan para-athlete keeping eyes on Tokyo 2021 despite postponed Games

Shelby Newkirk practises her breaststroke at the Harry Bailey Aquatic Centre in Saskatoon on March 14, 2020. Newkirk is currently ranked second in the world in the 100-metre backstroke. Photo by Libby Giesbrecht.

Team Canada para-swimmer Shelby Newkirk’s road to Tokyo just got longer – by a year.

As COVID-19 continues to spread, public health concerns worldwide have escalated as medical officials attempt to slow the virus, prompting the unprecedented decision to postpone the 2020 Summer Olympics until 2021.

The Canadian Olympic Committee announced March 22 it would not send any athletes to the Olympic and Paralympic Games this summer in Tokyo because of concerns over COVID-19. Two days later, the International Olympic Committee announced the postponement of the Games due to the pandemic.

Newkirk, 23, currently holds the world record in the 50-metre backstroke S7 with a time of 38.00 seconds and is ranked second in the world in the 100-m backstroke S7. The swimmer said the postponement of the Games means a change of plans.

“It was definitely a lot to process,” said Newkirk. “At first, I kind of just took time off to really focus on myself and my mental health and just really make sure I was in a good place to understand what’s happening.”

“It’s definitely a big change but the goal stays the same, it’s just the timing is a little bit different.”

These adjustments have caused feelings of fear, uncertainty and sadness, but Newkirk is no stranger to overcoming obstacles. When she was only 13, Newkirk was diagnosed with a neurological movement disorder known as generalized dystonia.

“My right foot, I started to have issues with it, it started to turn in and I didn’t have control about the positioning,” said Newkirk.

Generalized dystonia is a movement disorder that causes a person’s muscles throughout their entire body to uncontrollably contract.

As Newkirk’s condition is progressive and affects her entire body, her physical condition is constantly changing.

“I had no idea what to think,” said Newkirk. “I always just thought something was wrong, you go to the doctor, they fix you, you walk away and everything’s all great … so hearing these people I thought knew everything saying, ‘I have no idea what to do’ … it was really discouraging.”

Newkirk said it took some time to realize the changes in her life weren’t temporary.

“It was really hard. I had always done … pretty much any sport available and all of a sudden, I couldn’t do that. A lot of my friends didn’t know what I could still do so I wasn’t invited to go to parties … I felt really isolated. I isolated myself a bit, too, because I was scared.”

Two years after her diagnosis, Newkirk fell in love with competitive swimming. Having swum recreationally prior to her diagnosis, Newkirk enjoyed new mobility in the water, in spite of her physical limitations.

“Swimming was the first place after I was diagnosed that I felt truly free,” Newkirk said.

“When I’m at the pool, I can just leave my wheelchair on the deck and swim away.”

Although Newkirk has not yet officially qualified for the Summer Games, her current world ranking and time standards make her likely to compete in Tokyo next year.

“Being second in the world, [Newkirk] kind of had a bye into the Paralympics,” said Saskatoon Lasers Swim Club head coach Eric Kramer.

Team Canada swimmer Shelby Newkirk, 23, was diagnosed with generalized dystonia at the age of 13. Newkirk was preparing to compete at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics when the games were postponed due to concerns over COVID-19. Photo by Libby Giesbrecht.

Kramer, who began coaching Newkirk in 2016, said the decision to postpone the Paralympics is a letdown for athletes. He also raised concern over whether some para-athletes will still be able to compete in a year.

“Shelby is one of them,” said Kramer. “Her condition, being dystonia, is just devastating.”

A new date for Paralympic trials has yet to be set. The progressive nature of Newkirk’s disease means her performance could change before trials to qualify for Tokyo.

“Everything is up in the air,” said Kramer.

Kramer called Newkirk a gold-medal hopeful for the Tokyo Games and said the swimmer will likely compete in the 100-m backstroke S7, 100-m freestyle S7, and the 4×100-m relay events.

“She’s resilient to death,” Kramer said. He added her ability to rebound from setbacks distinguishes her from other athletes.

Instead of travelling to Tokyo, the athlete will continue training in preparation for the Summer Games next year.

“I guess my summer has changed a little bit,” Newkirk said with a chuckle.

What hasn’t changed is Newkirk’s goal to “come back stronger than ever.

“Every day I practise, I smile a little bigger because I get to do the thing I love,” said Newkirk.

The 2020 Paralympics were originally scheduled to take place in Tokyo Aug. 25 to Sept. 6, 2020. The Games will now run Aug. 24 to Sept. 5, 2021.

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