The world stage has always been the goal for Keely Shaw — one way or another.
For the Paralympic bronze medalist from Midale, Sask., her first aspirations began on the hockey rink. (Midale is approximately 150 km southeast of Regina.)
“(Hockey was) my first true love, really, growing up. It wasn’t too long into my minor hockey career that I said I wanted to go to the Olympics … and that’s where most of my focus went for the better part of my childhood and teenage years,” Shaw said.
“And my first-year midget, I made the AA hockey team which was in my mind that first step. I was hoping then to try out and make the AAA teams the following year and, hopefully, that would eventually lead into the university teams, all on this pathway to … the Olympic Games.”
A horse-riding injury while checking on the elk her family were raising on their farm in November 2009 crushed Shaw’s Olympic hockey dream.
“I didn’t have a saddle on my horse which is something I’d done a million times before. I often didn’t when I was doing a short ride like that and my horse decided he didn’t want to be there anymore so he took off … and I hit the ground in, I guess, the exact perfect – or imperfect, depending how you look at it – way,” Shaw recalled.
“I was rushed to Regina (General Hospital). We had a CT scan and it was confirmed that I had a bleed deep in my brain. They didn’t want to go in to stop this bleep themselves because it was so deep within my brain … and lucky enough, that bleep stopped.
“When I woke up, I had a tube down my throat to breathe for me. I had a tube up my nose to feed me and I couldn’t move half my body.”
With partial paralysis on her left side, Shaw returned to the hockey rink but admitted it wasn’t the same.
“That was my number-one goal but I was still not the hockey player that I once was and I probably never will get back to that player because, well, half my body doesn’t work very well,” Shaw said.
“It was actually really frustrating and I didn’t enjoy the sport anymore because I was constantly comparing myself to this player I used to be.
“The amount of function I have depends day-to-day … if I don’t have everything in my life in peak order, my body just stops working, essentially. But I have about 60 to 70 per cent function in my leg and lower body.”
Once classified for a para sport, she chose cycling while studying kinesiology at the University of Saskatchewan.
“I enjoy doing it … and so I started training for cycling when I finished my undergrad degree in 2016, I bought myself an actual good bike as a graduation present to myself. In 2017, I entered my first race in Moose Jaw and as of 2018 in March, I was at world championships,” Shaw said.
Her perseverance paid off when she landed in Japan to compete for a medal in the women’s C4 individual pursuit at the Paralympics in August.
“I heard my name for bronze for Canada, and it was like the four years that I’ve been racing bikes … it’s like this big weight was lifted off my shoulders,” Shaw said.
“I opened my phone and it was just flooded. And, at this point, it’s like 1 a.m. in Saskatchewan on a Tuesday night, everybody’s got to work the next day but the amount of people that stayed up to watch it … I can’t even express the feelings and emotion that was going through me.
“The entire southeast corner of the province, I feel, was reaching out to me and was watching this race and I don’t know if I’ll ever get to experience that again and I’m so fortunate that I was able to be there and that I had the support that I did backing me.”
Her medal turned out to be the only one brought home by a born-and-raised Saskatchewan athlete from both the 2021 Olympic and Paralympic games.
“It means that there’s going to be a lot more visibility … (for) the sport of (para) cycling and knowing that you can be from Saskatchewan and perform on the world stage,” said Michelle Dezell, who’s the manager of high-performance sport with Canadian Sport Centre Saskatchewan.
“But probably the greatest gift Keely gave us with that bronze medal was opening the medal outpouring … She was the first medalist for Team Canada. She knew she was competing on that first day and she really rose to the challenge.”
“Traditionally, (Saskatchewan) almost have to book another plane to bring the hardware home from games and this one was a little light.”
Dezell said there were eight athletes with Saskatchewan roots at each of the international competitions this year.
“As a whole, actually, both teams did very well. We sent a lot of first-time Olympic and Paralympic athletes. Actually, Nic Goncin on the wheelchair basketball team was the only returning athlete from Saskatchewan,” Dezell said.
“First-timers did really well and it’s just operating under difficult circumstances and a lot of unique aspects that COVID has added to the preparation and competition side.
“Sometimes you need that introductory Olympics or Paralympic games to get you ready for your next games … You’re seeing what this special event held every four years is all about and then you’re ready.”
While Shaw pursues higher education via a PhD, the 27-year-old is also looking for an upgrade at the next summer Paralympics in France.
“Focusing a little bit on school but our next world championships are in March, so there won’t be too much downtime before we pick it up again … The goal is going to be to go to Paris in 2024, hopefully, upgrade the colour of that medal,” she said.
“Saskatchewan has so many incredible athletes that it just so happened that it was my day and not theirs in Tokyo and I think that when we go off to Paris, we’re going to see a few more medals come from Saskatchewan.”