Keely Shaw and Julie Kozun come from different places and compete in different sports, but they have one thing in common – 2016 wheelchair basketball Paralympian Erica Gavel.
“Erica came up to me in the gym one day when I was working out and said she had heard my story,” said Shaw. “And that passing conversation in the gym essentially changed my life.”
Growing up in Midale, Shaw was passionate about hockey and had dreamed of competing at the Olympics. However, when she was a teenager, a fall from a horse left her with a broken blood vessel in her brain causing partial paralysis.
“When I got hurt, nobody knew how to treat me, nobody knew how to look at me,” said Shaw. “I didn’t have anybody to look for when things were tough, and I was struggling with the fact that I was a 15-year-old who is partially paralyzed.”
Shaw was forced to form a new identity and find a new passion. And she did that with the help of Gavel.
“Especially in the early days, I didn’t know anyone in para-sport and I had trouble identifying myself as a para-athlete,” said Shaw. “I didn’t even know I was classifiable for para-sport until she came to me and said here’s all the opportunities, you just need to say yes.
“When I find out someone has an impairment, the first thing I think about is ‘are they in Paralympic sport?’ and if not, are they interested in being in Paralympic sport because of all the opportunities that are out there,” said Gavel, who first heard of Shaw’s injury through her roommate at the time. “I just introduced myself and from an athlete’s perspective, asked if it was something that would be of interest to her and then from there, introduced her to (sport physiotherapist) Bruce Craven and the rest is history.”
Since that conversation in the gym, Shaw has ascended to be one of the top para-cyclists in the world. The 28-year-old has won a world championship silver medal, two world championship bronze medals and a Paralympic bronze medal from the 2020 Tokyo Games.
“I am just so proud (of her),” said Gavel. “I know how hard it is to get there.”
Gavel’s connection to Kozun is quite similar. After losing her left leg below the knee in a lawnmower accident, Kozun’s dreams of playing elite volleyball faded – at least she initially thought. However, as it turns out, Gavel heard of Kozun’s accident through her extended family in Melfort, who is close friends with Kozun. And from there, a connection was made.
“Following the accident, my aunt reached out to me and wanted my perspective on things,” said Gavel. “I explained to her that there is a lot of opportunities from a sport perspective now.”
So, Gavel met with Kozun and brought her silver medal from the 2015 Para Pan American Games with her, to symbolize how many opportunities there are in para-sport for someone who is motivated to stay involved at a high level. After the initial conversation, Gavel connected Kozun with the head coach of the national sitting volleyball team and shortly after, Kozun was flown out to Edmonton for a camp. And from there, she made a good impression on the team and at 16, she became youngest member of the national roster.
“I’m very thankful… I didn’t have to go out and try to find it,” said Kozun.
Kozun has since represented Canada at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics and more recently helped Canada to a silver medal finish at the world championships. Now, Kozun and the team have their sights set on the 2024 Paris Paralympics, trying to improve on the fourth-place finish from 2020.
“I am really hungry for a medal,” said Kozun. “That’s one of the biggest motivators.”
While Gavel is now retired from playing wheelchair basketball, she is now working on her PhD at Ontario Tech University in environmental physiology and Paralympic performance, while continuing to encourage others to stay involved in sport.
“I do everything I can to pay it forward and hopefully help people have those same experiences,” said Gavel. “Everything that I have now is because of para-sport.”
And while conversations like ones with Shaw and Kozun don’t happen every day, Gavel is making it her mission to bring more awareness to opportunities in para-sport.
“Within the last year or so, a supervisor and I have been able to get some funding from the Canadian Paralympic Committee, where we’re actually running a program that is geared towards athletes who are newer to Paralympic sport,” she said. “I do take a lot of pride in trying to raise awareness and hopefully get more people involved in para-sport.”
In fact, Gavel said she believes it’s her responsibility.
“When I see someone who has the potential and the interest to pursue an opportunity, I really try my best to let them know there’s opportunity and then let them know if they need help reaching that opportunity,” she said.
However, there was a time in her life where the Prince Albert product was one of those athletes lacking direction. Gavel was a member of the University of Saskatchewan Huskies basketball team before a serious knee injury forced her to the sideline. Like Shaw and Kozun, Gavel was at a crossroads trying to stay involved in the sport she loved. And at the time, a classmate was involved in wheelchair basketball, so Gavel took it upon herself to ask if she could attend a practice. From there, she enjoyed it and found out she was classifiable for para-sport. All of her passion and focus was then directed to the wheelchair version of the game, which opened more doors than she could have ever imagined.
“I am just so grateful,” she said. “I’m living a life I never though would be possible.
“It’s completely changed my life.”
As for Shaw, she’s also currently pursuing her PhD in exercise physiology and sport nutrition while training for the next para-cycling season with the goal of competing in the Paris 2024 Paralympics. She’s also working to change some people’s perception of para-sport.
“When a lot of people think Paralympics and para-sport, they think amputees, limb deficiencies and spinal cord injuries and that’s not me,” said Shaw. “I can be part of a bigger movement that’s changing the narrative and changing the expectation of para-sport.”
And like Gavel, Shaw is making it her mission to be that role model for others who might find themselves in a similar situation.
“When I got home from Tokyo, I had a message on Instagram from an occupational therapist from the (Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto), who said ‘Keely, I’ve got an 11-year-old girl who has an injury very similar to yours and she’s never been interested in sports but she watched you race and now all she can talk about is how she can see herself on the Paralympic stage,’” recalled Shaw. “It’s about inspiring the next generation. And maybe she will go to the Paralympics but maybe she will just find a sport she loves and find a para-athlete community where she feels included instead of possibly trying to compete with her able-bodied peers and just never feeling like she can keep up.
“My hope is that I can be somebody that other people, potentially little girls look at and say she looks like me. Half of her body doesn’t work. She walks like me.
“To me, that’s what this is about.”