Saskatchewan will be sending two para swimmers to the Tokyo Paralympic Games and they’ve already forged a deep bond around the pool.
While they may not be sisters, Niki Ens and Shelby Newkirk are friendly teammates with the same competitive guts.
Ens, 32, was a regular in the pool from a young age. Her love for the water was rekindled after a vehicle collision just outside her hometown of Meadow Lake, Sask., in February 2014 that left her a C5 paraplegic.
“When I was like three months old, I was wearing a life jacket and my dad threw me off the boat into the lake and ever since then I’ve loved the water,” Ens said.
“In high school, I was a lifeguard and then after my car accident and spinal cord injury the water has just been a place … where you leave the (wheelchair) behind and it’s just a sense of freedom in the water.”
Ens was approached by Newkirk after the crash who invited her back to the pool and quickly thereafter was connected with the Saskatoon Lasers Swim Club and began her journey in para swimming.
“I love the sport so much, and I’m always trying to get more people involved and involved in any kind of parasport,” Newkirk said.
“And I actually knew about Niki long before I met her as her aunt actually worked at the school that I was going to at the time. And so I kind of knew about her story and everything and I knew it that she was in Saskatoon. … And I just thought, ‘Hey, I’ll invite her, see what she thinks.’
“I think that there’s so many benefits to be found in any sport. And I think swimming is one that we’re kind of unique in that we have all kinds of different disabilities represented. We have people with physical disabilities, intellectual, visual. So I think it’s such a great sport to get people involved in.”
The two trained together through the COVID-19 pandemic and Ens calls her teammate a “huge” inspiration to her and the kids she coaches in a para program.
The 25-year-old Saskatoon native was diagnosed as a teen with generalized dystonia, a progressive neurological disorder similar to Parkinson’s disease that resulted in her losing the use of her right foot.
“Mine is generalized so it affects all four limbs, my face, my neck, my torso. Everything’s affected in some way and it’s also progressive. It just always progresses through the years,” Newkirk said.
“But I have such a good medical team here now and with the help of my neuro physio, my neurologist, all these kinds of things, we’re able to manage it.”
Out of the pool, Newkirk has a passion for crocheting and runs a small business, from which she shares products that can help make life more accessible for others.
“(It’s) a new business that I started during the pandemic actually, where I make ergonomic crochet hook handles and it’s called Accessible Life. And basically, my goal is to make products so that people can live a more independent life,” Newkirk said.
“I don’t want them to look like a medical model. … A lot of products made for people with disabilities are either a) super expensive or b) really look like they’re part of a hospital, an institution. And I think that’s just unnecessary.”
With seven provinces represented on Canada’s para swimming team, the duo are the only ones from Saskatchewan and will also be making their Paralympic debuts.
“(I) found out about a month ago now and it was really exciting. And yes, the fire is lit now and training is just lit up a notch and yes, I’m hopeful to set personal bests and move up the rankings in Tokyo,” Ens said.
She said she feels honoured to represent a province of “close-knit, very genuine, supportive people.”
“For me, it’s getting more real that I’m representing Saskatchewan. For example, my neighbours are just texting me and they set up a celebration barbecue and it’s just such an awesome community.”
The para swimmers plan to go to performance preparation camp in Vancouver on Aug. 3 and then leave for Japan on Aug. 19. The postponed Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games are scheduled to take place Aug. 24 to Sept. 5, 2021.
“(The Paralympic Games) really is the same as the Olympic Games. Para in Paralympic stands for parallel, there the parallel games to the Olympics. And I think it’s really cool to be able to see that people are starting to say Olympics and Paralympic Games,” Newkirk said.
“And I think that means big things for a Paralympic movement.”