The 20-year-old College of Education student has already set five Canadian records in para-swimming, in only her fifth year of competition. Her rapid rise has caught the attention of national team coaches, who selected her for the NextGen Camp Program, designed to develop the next crop of Canadian swimmers for the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo.
“A lot of things are happening all of a sudden, so it’s really exciting,” said Newkirk, whose family (younger brother Cole, mother Kathy-Jo and father Rex, a professor in the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Agriculture and Bioresources) recently moved back home to Saskatoon from LaSalle, Man. “After putting in the work and time and then getting the reward, it really feels good.
“It’s been a crazy year for sure. Moving back to Saskatchewan and changing schools, switching swim clubs and all of that kind of stuff, and then setting those Canadian records, it’s definitely a good feeling. And now that I’m on the NextGen team for Tokyo 2020, it feels that much more realistic of a goal.”
Newkirk, a member of the Saskatoon Lasers Swim Club, dived right into this season by setting Canadian para-swimming records in the 50-metre breaststroke, 100m breaststroke, 200m breaststroke, 50m backstroke and the 100m backstroke, which is her best Paralympic event.
The next stop on the road to Tokyo for Newkirk is at the Copenhagen Para-Swimming World Series in Denmark, where she is currently competing to secure international classification for the national team trials that begin March 30 in Windsor, Ont. A strong showing there will earn her a trip to the world championships that start Sept. 30 in Mexico City, one step away from the Paralympics in 2020.
“When I started swimming five years ago, I never thought that I would be at this point where I would be making goals for being in the Paralympics,” said Newkirk. “But my first coach sat down with me once and said, ‘It’s not if you are going to make the Paralympics, it’s when.’ So that’s when we started focusing on goals to work up to that. And being able to represent Canada on the biggest stage would be so cool.”
Plenty of work lies ahead for Newkirk, who balances swimming and studies, training five or six days a week while also taking a full course load in her first year of education. Simply getting around campus is also a challenge for Newkirk, who has no feeling in her right leg and has symptoms spreading throughout her body, after being diagnosed with early-onset generalized dystonia when she was 13.
“I use crutches most of the time, if I am just going somewhere fast for a couple of seconds. But if it’s anything longer, I use my wheel- chair, so at school I always use my chair,” she said. “It’s difficult, just because you do have to change some things and not everything is accessible … but there are so many people (on campus) who are willing to help and advocate on your behalf to get you to where you need to go, so that’s awesome.”
Newkirk has quickly become a role model for young para-swimmers and is passionate about working with children with disabilities. As a teacher, she wants to help make the classroom, the gymnasium and the pool more inclusive and accessible.
“I have always known that I wanted to help get kids more involved, especially kids with disabilities,” said Newkirk, who earned a two-year diploma in disability and community support at Winnipeg’s Red River College in 2016 before transferring to U of S. “I kind of relate to kids that way and I think whatever I can do to make somebody else’s time at school easier, then I want to try and do that. So I am going into education with the mindset of inclusive classrooms and getting all kids involved, no matter what their abilities.”
For her part, Newkirk’s abilities are helping her represent her country on the international stage, with the Paralympics in Tokyo only three years away.