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Wheelchair racing has provided Britney Volkman with a way to focus her competitive spirit. Born with spina bifida, she never previously thought she would be able to find her place in sports. (Photo supplied)
Athletes of the Year Andreas Thome, left, provincial high jump champion, and Britney Volkman, provincial champion for women’s 100 and 200 m wheelchair open competition. Britney also broke the record for the 100 m wheelchair open race. Photo supplied
Self-isolation can be tough on a young athlete.
And while it’s the kind of adversity that has forced some to toughen up over the past year, for Britney Volkman, it may have just provided a gauge as to how resilient she’s always been.
After all, it doesn’t get much more isolated than growing up on a dairy farm outside of the hamlet of New Sarepta, 50 km southeast of Edmonton.
But it’s not just the distance that left her feeling on her own, at times. Volkman was born with spina bifida, a neural tube defect where the spine and spinal cord aren’t properly formed.
It meant life in a wheelchair, which did nothing to help her try to keep up with her brothers and sisters, as the youngest of five children. Literally left on the sidelines while her siblings competed in school sports, Volkman never imagined herself having anything more than a spectator role.
“No, not at all. I just never really hear of sports for wheelchair people other than throwing,” said Volkman, 19. “Sometimes it felt unfair to see everyone else do something that I couldn’t do.
Despite the overwhelming circumstances, nothing was able to extinguish a competitive spirit she has felt for as long as she can remember. But then she discovered an opportunity to channel it and keep up with the pack in her own way.
“It’s a funny story actually,” the 19-year-old recalled. “My older brother went to provincials for track in Grade 11 and he saw that there were wheelchair races and he was like, ‘Britney, you should try wheelchair racing because you could get a banner for our school.’
“Our school’s really tiny.”
Her ambitions, on the other hand, are anything but. Volkman’s been racing since 2017 and that initial vision of hanging a banner in the gymnasium of New Sarepta Community high school has evolved to the national stage.
The first step was to find somewhere that offered it, of course, as wheelchair racing requires specialized equipment that doesn’t exactly come cheap.
That’s when she found The Steadward Centre for Personal and Physical Achievement.
“I tried it out and fell in love with it,” said Volkman, who normally makes the trip to the centre’s facilities at the University of Alberta twice a week to work with her coach, as well as training on her own. “Without them, I would not have had this opportunity to get involved and would not have had a place to do my training.
“Initially, the racing chair was donated to the program at The Steadward Centre, so I was just borrowing it. But then, once I decided that I wanted to be more serious about racing, we decided to buy it.”
The return on investment, if you will, led to Volkman becoming a record-breaking high school provincial champion, qualifying for the Western Canada Summer Games, and from there, competing in the 2019 national championships in Montreal.
Each stop along the way has led to new personal bests, which currently sit at 1:21.26 in the 400m, 39.62 in the 200m and 21.16 in the 100m, with the ultimate goal of one day competing in the Paralympics.
As with all sports, 2020 did a number on Volkman’s plans to compete in nationals again this past summer, which were cancelled by COVID-19, which also forced temporary closures of her training facility at times and sessions to go online.
When that happens, she simply finds herself on the family farm, racing on permanent rollers in her basement fitness area she already had set up pre-pandemic.
On her own.
With newfound goals ahead.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2021