Keely Shaw believes the Tokyo Paralympic Summer Games were definitely a “life-changing” experience.
Shaw (nee Toles), who hails from Midale, is back in Canada after representing her country in para cycling. She won bronze in the women’s C4 3,000-metre individual pursuit, recording a time of three minutes, 48.342 seconds in what was her debut event at the Paralympics.
She edged out Australia’s Meg Lemon in the bronze race at the velodrome.
“After the year and a half, almost two years that we’ve had, that just made it that much more special,” said Shaw.
She also finished fourth in the time trial with a time of 42 minutes, 11.09 seconds, and 13th in the road race.
Shaw has played the day of the pursuit competition over and over in her mind. She’s quick to admit that she did not perform very well in the qualifying race, and had she raced to her potential, she believes she might have been racing for gold.
“If I’m being perfectly honest, my nerves got the best of me. And I think that’s fair and reasonable for somebody at their first Paralympic Games.”
The times posted for the top four qualifiers would have been a world record two years ago, she said, which reflects the growth of the sport.
Shaw fell behind Lemon early in the bronze medal race, but she didn’t know that until afterwards. Due to the nature of racing on a velodrome, she only knows how she’s doing. But she gradually caught up and took the lead, winning by about 1 1/2 seconds.
“Meg and I have always been back and forth between our placings. We started racing on the international scene at the same time, and it’s always been a back and forth for us,” said Shaw.
Lemon won the bronze medal in the C4 time trial over Shaw.
“We’re fighting tooth and nail for every .1 per cent, because it’s that .1 per cent that could mean being on the podium or not,” said Shaw.
When Shaw and the other two medallists in the pursuit were in the waiting room following the pursuit, they were smiling and laughing.
“At that point, we’re not competitors, we’re just three girls from three different countries who happen to race bikes, and we’re joking,” said Shaw.
Receiving the medal and watching the Canadian flag being raised from the podium was “absolutely incredible,” but she was also motivated because O Canada wasn’t being played.
The pursuit has traditionally been her best event, and the one she has focused on the last eight months.
The time trial was initially the event she was targeting, and she has had a World Cup podium finish – a silver medal from her first event. She described fourth place as “the loneliest placing,” because she’s so close to the podium.
“I went out saying ‘I just want to have fun on my bike. I really like riding time trials. I find them so much fun. And I just wanted to leave anything out there on the track. I think I achieved that.”
The time trial proved to be the most fun she’s had on her bike for a long time.
“And that was my ultimate goal for that race, was to have so much fun on my bike. And that, without a doubt, was achieved. Placing fourth sucks. I’m not going to lie.”
But she was still proud to see other people experiencing the emotion of being on the podium.
The goal for the road race was to stay on her bike, which was even more difficult considering a torrential downpour and low visibility that day. Her back wheel was skidding a lot in the corners, so she had to play conservative.
Due to the pandemic, there were experiences the athletes missed out on, beyond the chance to perform in front of spectators. They also didn’t get to perform in a multi-sport environment.
They weren’t in the Olympic village itself, as their venues were quite a distance from Tokyo, so they stayed in satellite villages outside of the main host city.
“In that way, it felt a lot like any other World Cup, any other world championships, because we didn’t have the opportunity to interact with other sports,” said Shaw.
But that was a pretty minor inconvenience.
“I wouldn’t say that detracted from how special the Games were by any means. It was still absolutely incredible to pull on the Maple Leaf, as it always is, when you actually get to race day, it had a whole another feeling. You see the Paralympic symbols all around, you see the media all around, and you know that everybody there is the best in their country at what they do.”
They did get to spend one day in the Games village.
Shaw is grateful for the support shown by people in southeast Saskatchewan and Midale in particular. When she won the bronze medal, she suspects it was late at night on Aug. 24 in Midale.
“All of a sudden my phone exploded with Facebook messages and Instagrams and emails. Everybody who had stayed up to watch me.”
The town put up banners on the lamp posts on Main Street, celebrating Shaw’s connection to the community. Residents donated to the Harry O Memorial Arena in her name.
“They sent me the list of everybody who had supported that cause the day after my race.”
She plans to be back in the community soon, and can’t wait to show everyone her medal.
“The whole town has been so invested in me. I think Midale might be the only community in Canada who was more excited to watch the Paralympics than they were to watch the Olympics.”
Shaw already has her eye on the 2024 Paralympics in Paris. She wants to upgrade the colour of the bronze medal in the pursuit, and win another in the road race event. But first she’s giving her body and her mind a chance to rest, and she’s riding her bike because she loves to, rather than for training purposes.
Ultimately, it will be up to Cycling Canada to decide whether she is selected, and she knows they’ll have lots of options.
“I’ve just gone through what can only be described as a life-changing event. There’s very few people in the world who will get to compete at the biggest sporting event in the world. I’m trying to let myself process everything that has gone down in the last four or five weeks, spend time enjoy being home with my family, and focus a little bit more on school.”