The Paralympic games are a showcase for incredible athletes who have faced incredible adversity and like any athletes, sometimes they need an extra push to unlock their full potential.
For Saskatoon Lasers para swimmer Nikita Ens, that push came well before the Paralympics were even on her radar.
“Para swimming started when my dad said I was too fat and I should stop eating my feelings. So yeah the very next day mom took me to the pool,” Ens said with a laugh.
Little did she know at the time, but that bit of tough love, delivered as only a parent could, set Ens on a path to Tokyo.
Just four years after her introduction to para swimming, the 32-year-old is now set to compete in three events at the Games.
“I was looking through a memory book that I wrote in Grade 12, and I have my school picture with some dream bubbles and the Olympic rings. I always wanted to go and watch the Olympics and now I’m going to the Paralympics as a competitor. It’s just kind of mind-blowing,” she said.
In 2014, Ens was involved in a car crash near her hometown of Meadow Lake, Sask., that left her a C5 paraplegic.
Like so many others faced with a traumatic, life-changing event, she struggled to come to terms with her new reality.
An active person who had competed in track and field in high school, worked as a lifeguard and once cycled across Canada, she looked for new activities that would provide a physical outlet.
“I had done a little bit of wheelchair track and field and I competed in Arizona and even made the standards for Rio (2016) but I just didn’t like it. So then after that I quit track and started eating my feelings,” she said.
“Then dad gave me that essential kick in the butt and I’m thankful that it’s led me to para swimming.”
Ens found a sense of peace and purpose in the pool.
“In swimming you can get out of the chair and it’s just like a bit of freedom in the water. Your limbs move a bit more and you can stretch,” she said.
Ens joined the Lasers in 2017 and under the guidance of her coach, Eric Kramer, she began her journey to the Paralympics.
“For the first few months training with the Lasers, Eric would get into the pool and work with the para athletes and see what muscle fibres function and he develops a personalized tailored plan to every individual,” she said.
By 2019, Ens was competing at the World Para Swimming Championships in London, where she raced in four events, qualifying for two finals and lowering her own Canadian record in the 100-metre freestyle S3.
Tokyo was now in her sights but then came the coronavirus. While the pandemic certainly threw a wrench in her plans, having the Games delayed by a full year may have been a blessing in disguise.
“To become an elite (para sport) athlete when you’ve been an (able-bodied) adult is a very hard change and she’s adapted very well, so this one-year delay has given her more time to really focus and become more of an elite athlete,” Kramer explained.
In June, Ens traveled to Germany to compete in a para swimming World Series event, her first international meet in months. She set new personal best times in the 200-metre freestyle S3 and the 100-metre breastroke SB2, the latter of which also established a new American record.
Now she’s ready to share the world’s biggest stage with hundreds of other athletes who understand what it takes to get there.
“I’m looking forward to seeing athletes from around the world because every person has their own story and they’re inspiring in their own way. It’s just so encouraging to be in that place,” she said.
And none of it may have been possible without that initial push.
“It’s a good reminder not to give up even in the hardest, darkest, most hopeless times. Press forward because the valley is going to end and I’m really thankful for where it’s led.”