Katarina Roxon proves she’s a champion both inside and outside the pool in this touching, inspirational one-on-one
There’s a unique glow to Katarina Roxon that’s difficult to ignore. While the paralympic swimming champion is a gold medalist, which earns her every right to beam from ear-to-ear on any given day, this champion’s light actually glows from the inside out. She’s just genuinely happy, and it shows.
Why the level of contentment? Well beyond her many accomplishments in the pool, like her gold medal win in the 100-metre breaststroke at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Roxon shares she’s just happy to call this place home.
“What’s not to love? It’s Newfoundland! This place is actually one of a kind, and the people? Everyone’s so happy, so friendly,” she opens, beaming with pride for her home province and its people.
There’s a genuineness to Roxon that’s endearingly “Newfoundland.” She’s nothing if not hometown-girl proud. “Stephenville and Kippens. That’s home to me. But even outside the province, wherever I travel, people that I know that have come to Newfoundland and then gone away, they always say they love Newfoundland. They want to come back. I was in Australia not too long ago, and people are friendly but it’s nothing like being home in Newfoundland Labrador.”
Is she a celebrity at home? What’s that like, we ask. She smiles graciously. “People will recognize me and then they’ll come up and talk to me, and it’s great. I’m a very friendly person and very open, so I don’t mind anybody coming and talking to me, I will talk away. I like to talk. So for me, it’s great and it’s nice to be recognized here at home.”
While sharing a yarn on the street because she’s recognized is one thing, the support she receives and the encouragement is something else.
“The support shown towards me, I truly love and appreciate. Because honestly, I couldn’t have done any of this without the support of everyone around me. So it’s been pretty great.”
She’s also acutely aware that’s she’s become a role model of sorts to many – young and old alike – along her journey. “I have to make sure I’m on my game and I am being the best role model I can be everyday. It’s great because it keeps me on my toes and it helps me to be a better person,” she says sincerely.
Life’s little challenges
Roxon has a very busy schedule. It’s not all glamorous photo shoots and outfit changes, she jokes. She’s currently training for the World Championships in England in September. “That’s my next big one. In August I’m leaving with Team Canada to train in France,” she shares.
While her medals speak for themselves when it comes to accomplishments, Roxon was born with part of her left arm missing, making life more challenging. She doesn’t shy away from that fact. While for some of her glam-shots she dons a prosthetic arm, for her, it’s not a big deal one way or another.
“Being born the way I was, it’s definitely given me a lot of confidence as I’ve grown. When I was younger, I didn’t have that much confidence. I’d always hide (my arm) or I’d always wear a long sleeve at first.”
So, what changed? “Where I grew up, all of my peers around me, they treated me like anybody else. And as I got older my friends, they never really saw me just as the girl with one arm. If didn’t have my prosthetic on, people would still hold a conversation with me. And it just didn’t faze anybody. No one said, oh! She has one arm, you have to be careful. Everyone treated me like everybody else. So I grew up in a great community with great peers and I’m definitely truly grateful for that experience.”
Roxon explains that she tries to make her experiences growing up the norm for others with disabilities.
“In my speeches or on my social media, I try to make a better awareness of peoples with disabilities because we’re just like anybody else. And it’s just that some things might be harder for us to do. That’s it. Sometimes you may need help, sometimes we don’t. But I know for sure; peoples with disabilities, they love, love, love their independence. And I’m firsthand proof of that. Ever since I was a little kid, I never wanted help tying my shoes. I would sit there and I would just love to tie my shoes because once I could, I was so proud.”
Reach for the top
It’s about the human desire to be independent, she shares. “It doesn’t matter if you’re able or disabled, everybody wants that independence. Some people may take a little bit longer than others but it’s still basically what everybody wants. So it could be in the pool or could be out of the pool. It could just be being able to tie your own shoes. Whatever it is, whatever that goal is, you just have to try.”
What’s she most proud of? Her gold in Rio in 2016 is up there, she admits. “It just kept getting bigger and bigger; my dream, my desire, to get onto that podium and to win a medal – not just for Canada but for Newfoundland and Labrador as well as for my family and my friends and all the people who have supported me throughout my entire journey. The many people in my corner who’ve helped me in some small way or some big way, I wanted it so badly for them,” she shares.
The tears started flowing once she stood on the podium, she admits.
“As soon as I heard the anthem I started to bawl. It’s because I was thinking of everybody who helped me get to stand on that podium, because I couldn’t have done it by myself for sure. I felt I was raising awareness for peoples with a disability and I was letting, especially kids here in Newfoundland and Labrador know, that anything is possible. You don’t have to limit yourself. It’s about dreaming big and aspiring to be the greatest you can be.”
‘Everybody has a goal’
What’s next? There’s so much left to do, she says, like aiming for Tokyo in 2020. Her biggest accomplishments are still ahead of her and she just has to keep working hard with the love and support of family and friends.
“I’m still on a journey. It’s not completed. I want to try to encourage people along the way because it doesn’t matter who you are if you’re a little six year old kid or if you’re an 80 year old man, everybody has a dream. Everybody has a goal. It’s about pushing yourself to get to that.”
There’s a nice bit of travelling in her future. Any chance she will settle elsewhere? She shakes her head emphatically ion that one.
“Newfoundland Labrador is home for me and I’ve been around to different sports centers around the world and they’re wonderful, they’re amazing facilities with everything you could want there. Everything you need right at your fingertips. But here in Newfoundland we might not have that same facilities, but home is home. If I had moved off the island I don’t think I would have been happy. I don’t think I would have gotten the same support or been given the same motivation.”
While she seems happy-go-lucky, she admits to having her challenges.
“Life is a struggle at times with lots of ups and downs, sometimes more downs than anything else, but it’s about getting back up there. What’s that saying? Fall down seven times, get up eight? That’s kind of how it was for me. And now I’m standing up and it feels really good. I’m feeling great. Training is going really well. There are a few days where my knee is sore, my back is sore, but it’s about managing the pain and working through it while not injuring myself even further.”
She says staying positive is more than half the battle. “It’s about believing in myself. It’s believing I can get on the podium and it’s about being the best I can be and showing the world that I’m still swimming and I’m still doing great and hopefully, and if God is willing, and if I work hard, and if I believe I can, I’ll get another gold medal.”
Roxon smiles at her mom and dad; Leonard and Lisa Roxon, who are waiting patiently for her to finish her interview and photo session.
“My dad, he’s still coaching me. He’s always so encouraging. He just has this passion and he’s there for support and it’s pretty great. He’s a very positive man so there’s no such thing as ‘I can’t.’ If something doesn’t work, you find a different way. And my mom? I used to get disqualified when I was doing butterfly, because you use two arms and you have to be level but because I’m missing one arm, it’s a lot harder.”
For four years her mom watched her get disqualified over and over again. Finally, she took matters into her own hands. “Mom fixed my butterfly stroke and then I haven’t looked back since,” Roxon says with a smile.
It’s time for this champ to head back to the pool. She has more training to do and more comps to prepare for. Before she leaves she has one final thought.
“What I’ve accomplished, it’s beautiful. I’m proud. But what I’m proud of most of all is how much support I’ve been given and how much what I’ve accomplished can be celebrated by everyone who ever cheered me on.”