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June 3, 2024

Community Spotlight presented by Crosbie

Community Spotlight: Paula Kelly - Sport of the Month: Swimming

Paula Kelly's journey in swimming is nothing short of inspiring. At just 12 years old, Kelly competed in the 1977 Canada Games held in her hometown of St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. This marked her entry into competitive swimming on a national stage. 

Reflecting on those Games, Kelly fondly recalls the thrill of competing in front of a home crowd. 

"Because it was local, we had a hometown crowd to cheer us on. When I traveled out of province, we never had the benefit of having people cheering for us. Competing at home meant neighbours, family friends, and relatives were all there. I vividly remember winning my heat in the 800 free, and the whole pool was so excited. I still even remember my time. It was an amazing experience," said Kelly. 

As the youngest member of Team Newfoundland & Labrador, Kelly’s experience at the 1977 Games was meaningful not just for her, but for the entire province's swimming community. Multi-sport Games provide an opportunity to showcase sports beyond the traditional hockey, baseball, and basketball that are considered some of Newfoundland and Labrador’s more popular sports. And the ‘77 Games did just that, catapulting these athletes in less often showcased sports into the limelight.

“When Blair Tucker won his gold medal for 200 meter butterfly, I think the Aquarena must still have the echoes of that night.”

Another significant outcome of the ‘77 Games was the introduction of  Newfoundland’s first 50-metre pool at the Aquarena, which elevated the province's competitive standards. 

"It was a pivotal moment for swimming because we got the 50-metre pool. We were swimming better as a province than we ever had. After the '77 Games, coach Tom Arusso came from out of province and took swimming here to another level. He coached me to the 1980 Olympics," noted Kelly.

From 1978 to 1981, Paula's accolades grew. She was honoured with the Best Performance by a Female Swimmer Award, and in 1980, she was named St. John’s and Newfoundland Athlete of the Year. Kelly also went on to be the youngest and first Newfoundland swimmer to make Team Canada’s Olympic Swim Team in 1980. Despite the disappointment of the 1980 Olympic boycott, which prevented her from competing, Kelly's achievements remained remarkable. She competed internationally winning a bronze medal in Hawaii and a gold medal in Japan. She was also named Best Canadian Female Breaststroke by Swim Magazine and she still remains one of Newfoundland and Labrador’s most talented swimmers. 

Kelly started her career in swimming at the Wedgewood Pool in St. John’s. The City honoured her achievements in 2014 when they built the Paul Reynolds Community Centre.

“Having my name on the new pool definitely does strengthen my connection to the original pool. It brings it full circle.”

For Kelly, swimming is still a big part of her life. But instead of doing it in a highly competitive way, she cherishes the time in the water and enjoys the calm, meditative feeling it gives her. She believes that athletes should find a calm space to manage high-pressure situations. 

"I know now there is a lot of support for the athletes to help them cope with the high pressure they are under when they are competing. There've been so many athletes from my time that really I think had struggled with that pressure that was put on them to constantly perform and without any guidance. We just kind of did it and realized afterward, 'wow that was a significant, big thing we just went through’. I am glad athletes have much more support now.” 

“It is also really important that athletes find that place where they can put it into perspective. It's not the end of the world if you don't make that time or you don't get that medal. Because when you put it in perspective and you get older, you’ll look back and think, 'oh yeah it’s okay.'" 

Her message to athletes heading to the 2025 Games is clear: "First of all, enjoy it. Soak it up. For many Newfoundland athletes, this could be their first national competition, and it’s very exciting. Enjoy the experience of competing at such a high level in front of friends and family. The local support will be incredible and will bring communities together. It’s a wonderful experience to have."