Sask trio making waves

Photo Credit (Krystal Shaw): Canadian Paralympic Committee

With dedication, record-breaking performances and podium finishes, Krystal Shaw, Shelby Newkirk and Nikita Ens are not only putting the Saskatchewan on the Para swimming map but inspiring the next generation.

It’s representation and growth that’s been a long time coming, especially for Shaw, who faced challenges and isolation as a pioneer of the sport in Saskatchewan when she began swimming at the age of nine.

“I was the first Para swimmer on my team and no one really had any knowledge of the sport,” explained Shaw who competes in the S7, SB6 and SM7 classes. “My coach [at that time] had never coached a Para swimmer before. At competitions I would be swimming against people much older than me and able bodied, too.”

Despite those barriers, Shaw continued to swim.

“I was the first Para swimmer on my team and no one really had any knowledge of the sport. My coach [at that time] had never coached a Para swimmer before. At competitions I would be swimming against people much older than me and able bodied, too.”

Krystal Shaw on the beginnings of her Para swimming journey

And while her participation primarily served as therapy to assist with her arthrogryposis and for after-school activity, Shaw began to make times that qualified her for ManSask and eventually Can-Am championships.

The events provided Shaw with an opportunity to compete against other Para swimmers, but also the ensuing results changed Shaw’s perspective on swimming. She started to see it as a competitive endeavour with long-term goals instead of a recreational activity.  

“My career really started taking off after I qualified for Can-Ams. I won two silver medals at those championships and that was the moment where I found my passion and wanted to try out for the Paralympics.”

Unfortunately, Shaw’s Paralympic dreams were put on hold in 2010, when complications from a blood clot and its effects on her life both in and out of the pool forced her to take a break from swimming. But during her absence, Saskatchewan’s high performance Para swimming group began to grow.

First came Newkirk.

Following a diagnosis of generalized dystonia in 2010, Newkirk (S7, SB5, SM7) was left seeking to fill the competitive gap from being unable to participate in many of the able-bodied sports she previously competed in.

“Up until I was diagnosed, I’d been involved in pretty much every sport imaginable,” said Newkirk. “After I was diagnosed, I could no longer do those sports and I just spent a year sitting around not sure what I could do, not sure where I belonged anymore.”

Thanks to the help of her first coach Karen Williams —a colleague of her mother’s who introduced her to Para swimming in 2011 when the family was living in Winnipeg— Newkirk quickly found her place in the pool.

Even with early successes, however, it wasn’t until a few years into her career that Newkirk started to learn more about parasports and the opportunities they provided, such as competing at the Paralympics. That knowledge gave Newkirk a new goal, which was wholeheartedly supported by Williams.

“I brought up to my coach that I really wanted to make the Paralympics someday as one of my goals,” explained Newkirk, who has been nominated to Canada’s Tokyo 2020 Paralympic team. “My coach then told me ‘It’s not if you make the Paralympics, it’s when.’ I really took that to heart and it lit a fire in me to know that I could get there with a lot of hard work, which is where I am now.”

“I think it’s great that swimmers can look up to and see that even though they may be from a smaller centre, that doesn’t mean anything for their goals. You can set goals as big as you want and no matter where you’re from and no matter what circumstances life has thrown your way, they’re possible if you work hard.”

Shelby Newkirk on Para swimming in Saskatchewan

In addition to her own development, Newkirk has also been instrumental in getting many other athletes involved in Para swimming, including Ens, who credits Newkirk’s tenacity out of the water for getting her in the water in 2017.

“I met Shelby at church one day before I started swimming and she was one of the people who invited me out. At first I said no, but she was persistent.”

Like Shaw, Ens wasn’t interested in the competitive side of the sport when she first started, instead using it as a means of fitness, exercise and meeting people after she was involved in a car accident that left her as a C5 paraplegic.

But her times and results at multiple events, including Western Canadian Championships and Canadian Trials drove Ens (S3, SB2 and SM3) to seek more opportunities and higher levels of competition.

“After I’d finished my first race at the 2018 Western Canadian Championships, one of the officials came up to me and told me I’d broken at Canadian record. That’s when the fire was lit!”

With Shaw returning to competition in 2016 as part of Regina’s Flatland Swimming Club, all three swimmers are now representing Canada at the highest levels and leaving their marks.

In 2019, Shaw earned three silvers and one bronze medal at the Parapan Am Games, while Newkirk won a silver medal in the S7 100-metre backstroke at the World Para Swimming Championships —helping her to earn her Paralympic nomination— and Ens twice finished in the top eight at those same championships.

Reaching those heights together has allowed the group to form a strong relationship that has assisted them not only by providing a little bit of home while traveling and competing, but through offering support during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re all going for the same goal and definitely the plan has changed, but we’re still working together and looking forward to being back as a team,” explained Newkirk. “For now, though, we’re supporting each other virtually as best we can.”

Adding to their friendship is a shared love for their sport and the personal experience swimming offers them. All three tried a number of parasport activities, including track and field, wheelchair basketball and sitting volleyball, but the freedom of being in the water, unrestricted by gravity, is what drew them all to Para swimming.

“After I’d finished my first race at the 2018 Western Canadian Championships, one of the officials came up to me and told me I’d broken at Canadian record. That’s when the fire was lit!”

Nikita Ens on why she continues to Para swim

“It’s the only place where I can leave my mobility devices behind,” said Newkirk. “I can get out of my chair, jump in the water and just swim away. It’s just me.”

Shaw, Newkirk and Ens are now sharing that feeling and their experiences with other athletes to motivate them to try Para swimming and see where it can take them.

Those efforts are particularly evident in Saskatoon where Newkirk and Ens have worked alongside their Lasers Swimming Club and Canadian Paralympic swimming coach, Eric Kramer, to build a learn-to-swim group – the only in Canada. Prior to COVID-19, the group registered close to 30 participants, with a mix of Para swimmers of all ages and abilities, including some swimmers’ family members.

From the group, there are about six or seven athletes who are now moving into the competitive side of Para swimming, which can only mean better things for the growth of the sport in Saskatchewan and further recognition for the province’s talent, says Newkirk.

“I think it’s great that swimmers can look up to and see that even though they may be from a smaller centre, that doesn’t mean anything for their goals. You can set goals as big as you want and no matter where you’re from and no matter what circumstances life has thrown your way, they’re possible if you work hard.”

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