Saturday, June 30, 2018

Year of Young People 2018: Toni Shaw

Each month in 2018, to celebrate the Year of Young People in conjunction with the Scottish Government and Young Scot, Scottish Swimming is profiling an outstanding athlete or volunteer from the world of aquatics. Check out our previous features: Cameron Brodie, Dominique Zahra, Lucas Thomson and Kayleigh Haggo

We meet in a corridor of Tollcross International Swimming Centre that is virtually deserted, in stark contrast to the event going on in the building itself, the 2018 Scottish National Open Championships.

Toni Shaw is competing here as part of her preparation for the World Para Swimming European Championships in Dublin in August. There are two small tables halfway up the corridor that give us peace from the chaos next door as a national championship rages on. Peace to get to know a young girl who has quietly went about her business over a rather miraculous year.

The 15-year-old from Aberdeen was a star on the World Para Swimming International Series, winning two golds, a silver and a bronze at the penultimate of the Series’ meets in Indianapolis, and then took bronze in the 100m backstroke. She also made two multi-classification finals at the British Para Swimming International Meet, in the 400m freestyle and 100m butterfly respectively, the latter her favourite event. Even as this article was being written, Shaw broke another Scottish Record, in the 400m Freestyle (S9).

All of these achievements are even more remarkable when you add in that she broke numerous records along the way and rarely competed against anyone younger than 16 (most were aged 16-25). Personal bests were regular throughout the year, which showed continuous improvement. These successes played a part in her home city recognising her with Sports Achiever of the Year – Disability Junior, at the Aberdeen Sports Awards. We don’t spend much time focusing on her disability (Shaw’s right arm never fully formed, and she competes in the S9 classification category alongside many amputees) because that isn’t what defines her. Shaw has a mindset based on trying your best no matter what, and in an interview with Scottish Swimming in late 2017 she remarked: “If you try hard then you can achieve your dreams.”

And she did exactly that, earning selection on to Team Scotland to compete at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in April, as the youngest member of the team no less.

“Did you ever think, standing behind the blocks in Gold Coast, I am only 14?”

She shakes her head.

The shake of the head isn’t a modest one, but nor is it arrogant. It’s an honest and assured one. During the Commonwealth Games, Shaw, perhaps unwittingly, showed herself to be a perfect example of the famous Matt Busby quote: If you’re good enough, you’re old enough.

A personal best was achieved in every event Shaw entered which proved she deserved to be there but she was quick to thank her coaches (both domestic and national) in helping her do so.

“I was really excited when I found out I was on the team,” she says, “But I was quite nervous as well because I didn’t know if Beth [Johnston] was going at that point. I really hoped she was going too because we’d known each other for a really long time, so I knew her more than anyone else on the team.

Shaw and Johnston were the two youngest swimmers on the team, but they “weren’t treated any differently” and settled in perfectly. “Everyone was so nice, and my favourite memory is from cheering on the team during the relays with everyone else. Everyone got so into it, it was so good to be a part of.”

In terms of racecraft, Shaw commeted: “I’ve learned a lot about how to approach going from a heat into a final. And I know that if you get too nervous then you won’t do well.”

It isn’t a stretch of one’s imagination to think that for Shaw, there are more nerves for an interview like this than for a race. She’s attentive and happy to be here, and smiles only leave her face when deep thought is required, but there’s no denying the bubble of shyness in which she sits.

When asked to sum herself up in three words, she takes time to think, leaning back on her chair and shrugging her shoulders slightly inward towards her face. We settle on “determined” to start us off, owing to the fact that she set her mind on swimming at the Commonwealth Games and achieved that goal. The other two words don’t come so quickly; it’s a subtle irony that Shaw is perhaps too shy to admit that she’s shy.

While we wait for the remaining two words to come to mind, it’s worth noting that it hasn’t been a carefree and simple year for Shaw. Flashback to July 2017 and Shaw was selected to the British Para Swimming team for the IPC World Para Swimming Championships in Mexico. However, tragedy struck when the country was hit by an earthquake and the Championships were cancelled. And once it was rearranged the decision was taken by British Swimming to forego the competition entirely, due to safety concerns.

But rather than sulk in the swamp of missed opportunity, Shaw set her sights on confirming her place on Team Scotland for the upcoming Commonwealth Games. And when she did, one of the first people to wish her well was Liz Riley, her coach during her time at Cults Otters. Cults were her first club, and Liz her first coach.

“She got the whole of the club to get together and send me a good luck message before I went out to Gold Coast so that was really nice," Shaw says. Riley told her how proud she was and that she fully earned this chance.

“I saw her a few weeks ago actually. We still keep in touch.

“We had a good bond and she really helped me.” But when asked if she thinks Liz saw something in her from an early age, Shaw blushes and says: “I dunno.” That response was surely with a hint of modesty, and Shaw has been invited to return to where it all began later this summer, where she will speak to the club’s younger swimmers about her experiences.

“What would you tell them if they were to ask ‘How do we get to a Commonwealth Games?’” I ask. “Just keep swimming! And make sure you enjoy it.”

And the mentality required to do so? “I think you have to be motivated by what competition you want to get to and know what exactly you want to achieve in the end but you still have to have fun because if you don’t like it then there’s no point.”

That is the type of mentality that inspired Scottish Swimming’s President Alison Low to specifically mention Toni Shaw’s journey in her welcome speech to the same championships taking place during this interview. She highlights qualities such as dedication and drive, and urges the young swimmers about to take to the pool to seize their opportunities just like Toni and her Team Scotland teammates did in Gold Coast.

“Energetic” is the next word Shaw decides is suitable for her. And in spite of her shy demeanour, there’s a bubble of excitement and energy in there that flourishes once you get to know her, as Shaw’s many friends and teammates confirm.

The last word? “Happy.” It’s fitting and it’s true. She has a lot to be happy about but what Toni Shaw perhaps doesn’t realise yet is how happy she can make other people, as a truly inspirational young person.