Colleen Shields fell in love with swimming at an early age and she’s been swimming ever since.

Colleen grew up in Burlington and swam for the Hamilton Aquatic Club as a kid. Her memories of swimming as a child are some of her fondest. They remind her of her mother who was also a swimmer along with both her brothers. Her dad, on the other hand, was an opera singer who didn’t really like the water.

Colleen believes that if her mom had not been so supportive, she may never have gotten into open water swimming and gone on to complete her daring crossings of Lake Ontario.

Colleen dove into the world of long distance open water swimming in 1989, when her best friend Rick Wood decided he was going to swim across Lake Ontario. Colleen told Rick, “You’re going to need me, so I’m coming.” She ended up swimming with him for 16 hours out of his 21-hour swim.

After Rick’s successful crossing, his crew were greatly impressed—with both Rick and Colleen. They told her, “When you do it next year, we’ll be there for you.” At the time, Colleen said “Well, I’m not doing it!” However, it didn’t take long for the tide to turn on this notion. She later thought: “If Rick can do it, so can I.”

One year later, on August 10th and 11th, 1990, Colleen Shields crossed Lake Ontario from Niagara-on-the-Lake to Leslie Street Spit (Toronto). She has made the crossing (and many more brave attempts) three more times since.

Tommy Thompson Park, also known as the Leslie Street Spit. Photo by Roozbeh Rokni

Swimming in the open waters

Today, Colleen lives in Georgetown and regularly goes down to Lake Ontario to swim.

Colleen’s most beloved beach is Burlington Beach, because of how easy it is to access. She feels this beach is perfect for kids and beginner open water swimmers because it doesn’t have a steep drop off. “You can walk out,” she says, “it’s really shallow and sandy.” Colleen also often swims at L.O.S.T. beach in Oakville.

Burlington Beach. Photo by Krissy Tower

Open water swimming holds a special place in Colleen’s heart. One of the things she appreciates most about open water swimming is that there is no need for the tedious turns required in a swimming pool.

“I like just going. I feel free and very peaceful in open water, especially at night. You can just listen to your stroke and your hands moving through the water. I find it very calming.”

Colleen has swam in some of the world’s most scenic waterbodies. In Lake Huron, she swam from Tobermory to Manitoulin Island through Caribbean-blue waters which were stunning (but extremely cold).

For one of her first open water races in 2002, Colleen swam in Christchurch, New Zealand for the World Masters Championships, surrounded by rugged volcanic beauty and sparkling waters.

Pegasus Bay, New Zealand. Photo by Bernard Spragg. NZ

Crossing Lake Ontario

With such exquisite swims under her belt, you might think Colleen would have trouble picking a favourite. However, Colleen considers her second Lake Ontario crossing in 2006 her proudest achievement and most rewarding open water swimming experience.

She remembers that the swim felt amazing. The water was warm, there was little wind, and she was accompanied by a fantastic crew.

“The swimmer gets the glory, but without the team, you wouldn’t get there.”

The swimming conditions were nearly ideal during her journey across Lake Ontario in 2006, but this is not always the case. Colleen has battled rough, frigid waters and powerful winds.

Oftentimes, Colleen talks to Mother Nature, asking her to cut her some slack. She pleads, “Please let me cross!” Sometimes, Mother Nature listens and the lake flattens out.

In Colleen’s opinion, 90% of long distance open water swimming is a mental feat. She knows that it’s possible to let your mind get the better of you. At other times, her mind zones out completely.

“It gets monotonous after a while. You could solve all the world’s problems in ten different ways and still have a further to go.”

What keeps Colleen going

Colleen once met and spoke to Lewis Pugh, ocean advocate and a pioneer swimmer. Lewis Pugh has swam in the north pole—something no human should be able to do—to raise awareness for global warming.

They talked about the challenges of open water swimming and how they overcome them. Lewis gave Colleen some invaluable advice. He suggested that she use photos that inspire her and keep her going during her marathon swims.

Colleen took what he said to heart.

For her 2014 crossing of Lake Ontario, Colleen brought along pictures as motivation. One photo depicted her touching the wall at Marilyn Bell Park after finishing her Lake Ontario swim in 2006—proof that she could complete the feat once more.

In a clever touch of her own, Colleen had her dad’s opera music set up on her SwiMP3 so she could listen to his songs on her breaks before setting out once again, feeling renewed.

When Colleen was about half a kilometer from shore, her crew showed her a picture of her mom, who Colleen lost at an early age. The photo brought tears to her eyes, but it gave her the final push she needed to finish the swim and make her mom proud.

Making a difference

Colleen doesn’t swim for records or media attention. She swims for her own health and for a better future for others.

In the past, Colleen has worked with Right to Play, an organization that protects, educates, and empowers children to rise above adversity. In 2013, Colleen swam for the empowerment of women with four other female swimmers. Supported by Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, Colleen took part in the 305-kilometer relay swim from Kingston to Burlington to raise money for Because I Am a Girl. Their motto was, “Because girls can.”

Spencer Smith Park, Burlington, where the relay finished. Photo by Jeff Hitchcock

Colleen understands the importance for environmental advocacy in the Great Lakes, too.

When people find out she swims in Lake Ontario, they often tell her, “I’m surprised you’re not glowing!” But Colleen has spent most of her life in the waters of Lake Ontario, and has not started glowing yet.

“When you’re out in the middle of Lake Ontario, it’s just the most beautiful emerald green. It’s clean.”

Giving back to the open water swimmer community

Colleen believes that open water swimmers should give back to their community. Since her first swim across Lake Ontario in 1990, she has been a swim master well over 30 times.

Photo Courtesy of Colleen Shields

“As a swim master, I like to get to know and understand the swimmer I will be observing. If things go awry, and they often do, you know the swimmer and you can talk to and motivate them as someone who’s been in the situation they are in.”

On August 30th of 2020, Colleen was a swim master for Julia Notebomber, who crossed Lake Erie on her 14th birthday. Julia swam 20-kilometres and became the youngest person to make the trip. Colleen recalls that the waves were big, but Julia went through them like it was flat water.

The call of Lake Ontario

For the past couple of years, Colleen has been planning another Lake Ontario swim. Lake Ontario is her favourite lake, and she’d like to cross it once more.

For her next crossing, Colleen plans to take the recognized north-south route, from Marilyn Bell park to Port Dalhousie.

“I was never going for records, but every time I attempted a Lake Ontario swim I was the oldest person to do it, at age 38, 54, and 62.”

Colleen has held the title multiple times, but now Pat Gallant-Charette, a swimmer from the US, holds it. There are no hard feelings, though. In fact, Colleen was Pat’s swim master during the record-breaking swim.

Pat said, “Let’s share it. I’m the oldest to come across, but you’re the oldest Canadian.” Colleen said, “I’m okay with that.”

Find Colleen’s home beach on Swim Guide here.

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