Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. September 2016. Katarina Roxon emerges and walks towards the edge of the pool at the Rio Olympic Aquatics Stadium. You can barely see her face – her hood is up, swim goggles securely over her eyes – but she radiates cool and calm as she gives the crowd a wave. She unzips her long jacket and sheds the layers of clothing keeping her muscles warm, flashing the camera a big smile. A moment of total silence, and then the horn – eight women surge into the pool, impossibly fast and graceful, driven by strength, preparation, and hunger for the podium. The women’s SB8 100-metre breaststroke at the 2016 Summer Paralympics is underway.
The road to Rio started in Kippens-Stephenville, a small community on the west coast of Newfoundland. “My parents thought swimming was a good life skill for me and my sister to have,” says Roxon. “At first, I absolutely hated the water. Not a fan. But over time it got to a point where they couldn’t get me out.” Roxon and her sister later joined the swim team: “It wasn’t just a team, it was a family. Everything started from there.”
Her connection to Newfoundland and Labrador runs deep. She speaks proudly of her hometown as the place that accepted her wholly and pushed her past her limits to great success. “It’s a small town, so everyone grew up with me and knew who I was. They didn’t see me as the girl with one arm, they just saw me as me.”
Roxon was born with her left arm missing below her elbow. “People often ask me how it feels to have one arm – well, how does it feel to have two arms?!” she says laughing. “It’s normal, just the way it is.” Although she felt comfortable in her community, “I was shy with my arm growing up,” she remembers. “I did get bullied a little bit. If I wasn’t wearing my prosthetic, I’d cover my arm up. But I always had an amazing family and great friends by my side, so I got out of that habit.”
Early in her swimming career, leaving her home and support system to travel for tournaments was difficult, but her love of competing kept her motivated. “I’ve always been very determined. My mom called me pretty stubborn,” she laughs. “I sat on our porch for hours until I learned how to tie my shoelaces. I like to do things by myself – for Para athletes, we’re often dependent on someone or something, so we like that feeling of independence. And I like to prove people wrong. I think I get that from my dad. When someone says he can’t do something it’s like, ‘OK, just watch me.’”
Roxon’s father eventually became her swim coach. “He’s the kind of person that likes to push people to be the best that they are,” she says. Roxon appreciates having someone to keep her on target: “There are days I don’t want to swim, like everybody else. But he sees the bigger picture, he knows where we’re going and what I need to achieve in order to get to the next step. He and my mom always told me I could do anything I wanted to do.”
At 15 years old, Roxon competed in her first Paralympics in Beijing as the youngest Canadian swimmer on the team. She loved the atmosphere, the people, the pool, and her first experience in the athletes’ village: “Everyone was from different countries for different sports, but they were all there to win a medal at the games and be the best that they could be. It was inspiring to see all these Para athletes get in the water and swim their hearts out.” After placing 12th at the games, she revamped her training, making it more challenging to prepare for London 2012. “I definitely put more pressure on myself to perform well. I wanted to get on the podium so bad.” In London, she placed 5th: “For me, it was a disappointment. I knew that I had a lot more in me.”
Back to the drawing board. It was a shift both physically and mentally – reflecting on London, Roxon recognizes the amount of pressure she put on herself didn’t serve her well. She learned to let go a little and enjoy herself more: “Everything started falling into place,” she says. “How I was feeling, how I was moving through the water.” In 2015, she collected six medals at the Parapan American Games in Toronto. “Having the home crowd and my family there was so exciting. I knew that I was on the right track.”
Which brings us to Rio. Before the 100-metre breaststroke, she remembers feeling unusually calm. As she climbed up onto her block, “I looked over the pool and said to myself, ‘God, take care of my giants for me.’ For me, my giants weren’t my competitors, my giant was the pool. I had to conquer this 100 metres. That set the tone for me.”
Diving in, she only thought of swimming – what her arms were going to do, what her legs were going to do, the position of her head. She kept her eyes closed, so she wasn’t aware of where her competitors were in relation to her. “I went for it and I knew I had to leave everything in the pool,” she says.
In the final stretch of the race, Roxon jets forward. “As I was coming in, I opened my eyes, took 2 strokes, and touched the wall. It was the perfect, perfect finish. I thought, ‘I’ll take whatever the result is and I’ll be happy with that.’” She takes a beat to catch her breath and search for her time on the board, at first not quite registering the “1” next to her name. Then, suddenly, her face crumples into tears. She clinched the gold medal.
“It was very emotional for me, it felt like a weight off my shoulders. I’ve never swum any race as close to perfect as that. And I was so happy for the other girls who medaled and how well they did.” Like Ellen Keane of Ireland, who received the bronze and met Roxon at the rope between their lanes for a long hug and happy-cry, the two women realizing they achieved their dream. “When I watch the race back, I can feel every single stroke,” she says. “I still have to hold my breath a little.”
When Roxon finally got to the podium, she told herself she wouldn’t cry – but as soon as the national anthem began to play, she broke down. “This medal wasn’t just for me, it was for all the people who helped me get there,” she says. “My family, my friends, my teammates, my community. This one was coming back to Newfoundland and Labrador.”
Roxon was met with the love and support of the entire country coming home to Canada. “It’s such a high, a roller coaster year,” says Roxon. She admits settling back into everyday life after Rio was “a little tough, mentally, physically,” but her eye is always on the prize. “Tokyo is my goal – to get there, to podium again,” she says, speaking of the 2020 Summer Paralympics in Tokyo. “I’m going to give it my all. The training will be intense for the next year and a half, but it’ll definitely be worth it.” She’s on the right track – last year, she won a gold, a silver, and a bronze medal at the 2018 Pan Pacific Para Swimming Championships in Cairns, Australia.
Throughout her life, Roxon has learned that true empowerment comes from within. “You need to love and accept yourself first if you want other people to be accepting of you,” she says. She uses her platform to motivate and inspire others, serving on the Provincial Council for Persons with Disabilities and as a representative for The War Amps of Canada, advocating for the power of sport, perseverance, and having big goals. Roxon’s mantra: “There’s always a way.”
She conquers giants by owning and learning from her past and never giving up or settling for anything less than her full potential. “I’m living proof that it doesn’t matter where you grew up and what you do or don’t have,” says Roxon. “Anything is possible if you have determination, a support system, and dream really big.”
Writing: Stephanie Chipperfield