As Vicki approached the Toronto skyline after her double crossing of Lake Ontario, her father said to her, ‘Look, the CN Tower is getting closer!’ Vicki replied, ‘No, I’m getting closer to the CN Tower.’”

This is the resolute mindset and self-reliant attitude Vicki Keith brings to all of her swims. Having crossed some of the most difficult waterbodies in the world, her determination has earned her 16 world records and over 41 honours and awards.

Now retired, Vicki lives in Kingston, Ontario.

“Any chance to be in Lake Ontario is my joy. Living on Lake Ontario and having the lake right on my doorstep is awesome.”

Today, Vicki uses her drive to coach swimmers with disabilities and raise money. Her fundraising total is over one million dollars.

Falling in love with the open water

Vicki Keith has always loved swimming.

She first experienced the bliss of open water at Victoria Beach on the shores of Lake Winnipeg, where her grandmother had a cottage. It was a natural oasis.

“Going to the cottage was like stepping into another world. Getting into the lake was that feeling all over again.”

Vicki fell in love with the water in Lake Winnipeg, but at the time she had no idea there was such a thing as open water swimming.

Growing up, she swam competitively for a number of years, however, she wasn’t sure where the lanes of the swimming pool would lead her. She was a competitive swimmer, though in her own opinion, not a very talented one. She just liked swimming.

Vicki knew that although she wasn’t the fastest, she was the most determined. In her opinion, that’s truly the difference between success and failure.

Photo by Abi Tripp

It was in the middle of the night that Vicki’s aspirations dawned on her. She loved long-distance running and she loved competitive swimming. While she was sleeping, her subconscious put the two together.

“I woke up and I had two words running through my head: marathon swimming.”

Vicki leapt out of bed, now wide awake, and got her Guinness Book of World Records. She flipped to the pages about open water swimming and read them over and over again, all night long. The next morning, she told her friends she was going to be a marathon swimmer.

This realization was the easy part. However, getting started on such a lofty goal (with few resources at her disposal—and certainly no internet) was difficult. Vicki admits she procrastinated for years because she didn’t know how to start. One day, somebody told her, “I’ve heard you talk about this over and over again. It’s time for you to get in the water, get busy, and do it.”

Within three months, Vicki had swum two world records: 12 miles butterfly along the shoreline in Kingston and 100 hours continuously swimming in a pool.

The beauty and freedom of open water swimming

In the open waters, swimmers are surrounded by a wealth of natural beauty that can’t be found in a pool.

From the pristine White Cliffs of Dover to the skyline of Toronto, Vicki has seen beauty wherever she goes. She trained in the Strait of Juan de Fuca as a storm raged and waves crashed up against the towering cliffs, an experience she describes as awe-inspiring.

Sometimes, Vicki finds beauty in what’s beneath the water. She remembers swimming in the clear, cold, crisp waters of Lake Superior, and seeing a shipwreck below. In the emerald green waters of the Catalina Channel, Vicki swam atop sea urchins and little stingrays.

Beyond beauty, Vicki’s favourite thing about swimming in open waters is that there are no walls to contain her. For Vicki, marathon swimming in untamed waterbodies is about being challenged, accepting adversity as your new norm, and moving forward.

“It’s the freedom, the coolness of the water, the lack of control in some respects, not having a controlled environment and not knowing what’s going to happen. The water temperature drops? You deal with it. The waves pick up? You deal with it. You start getting a sunburn? You deal with it.”

Photo by Boris Spremo

The physical and mental challenges of wild water

Vicki believes that we are meant to be uncomfortable and we have to take every opportunity to be, just like jumping in the lake when it’s really cold.

“I used to be the person that walked into the water slowly, but I’ve become the person that takes the big plunge. I really enjoy hitting the cold water and experiencing the temperature, whatever it is. There’s always that shock and that thrill as you get in.”

Over decades of achieving unbelievable feats, Vicki has learned that it’s good to challenge yourself physically and mentally. In fact, that’s the only way you can continue to grow.

Photo by Alan Dunlop

Vicki will never forget the first few strokes of her first world records. As she set out for her 12-mile butterfly swim in Kingston, her goggles began to fog up. She remembers swimming for what felt like forever, but when she looked over her shoulder, she saw that she hadn’t even gone 400 meters. She knew that if she wanted to break the record, she would have to buckle down and just accept things.

Soon, one drop of water trickled down the fog of her goggles, leaving one stripe of clarity. Vicki remembers turning her head just right so that she could see where she was going through the small stripe.

“I think every time you face a challenge and you overcome it, you get that much stronger. By starting off with a smaller record, I learned some of the skills I could take into the bigger ones.”

Meeting the water’s many inhabitants

The thing that scared Vicki the most before she started open water swimming was the imaginary hand reaching up and grabbing her ankle and pulling her down—especially at night.

But once she became more familiar with the open water, that completely disappeared. There were enough things to worry about that were real!

Photo by Bernard Weil

Swimming in wild waters, you have to share the space with its inhabitants. While swimming the Catalina Channel, a blue shark went underneath her a couple of times, close enough that she could have reached out and touched it. During her English Channel swim, Vicki got jellyfish stings all over her body that were painful for days after, and left welts that remained for weeks.

Swimming In the Great Lakes, Vicki had a rule: if she was ever attacked by a lamprey, she would catch it and throw it into the boat so she could mount it on the wall. Vicki has never encountered lamprey in the Great Lakes, however, while training along the shoreline of Lake Ontario, Vicki ended up in some salmon nesting areas and was chased out.

“In Lake Winnipeg, I was doing butterfly and my knees came together and I caught a fish between my knees. All I could imagine was the look of panic on the fish’s face!”

Finding the right support

Vicki’s favourite swimming memories have more to do with the people supporting her than the swims themselves.

She recalls having to build herself up after an unsuccessful crossing of the Catalina Channel for one of the most challenging swims of her career: the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

The Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Salish Sea. Photo by NASA Johnson

The water in the strait was between 7 and 10 degrees celsius. Life expectancy in water that cold is only an hour and a half, and it was going to take Vicki 14 hours to complete the swim. But she came prepared.

Beyond developing the strict focus and single-mindedness necessary for her swims, Vicki had learned the importance of finding the right crew. For each swim, she is accompanied by people that can offer something emotionally and mentally—people who create a circle of positivity around her when things get tough.

“You need someone that can handle the boat, but you also need people there that are adventurous who won’t fall apart the first time something goes wrong. You need that emotional strength around you because there are moments when you don’t have that strength in your heart. But if you can look at one other person and know that they have that emotional strength you can draw from them.”

Towards the end of her swim across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Vicki experienced this crucial dynamic.

After nearly 14 hours in the water, Vicki began to fall unconscious as she swam. She shook her head and took a few more strokes before lapsing into unconsciousness once again. But she wasn’t alone.

Her younger brother grabbed a life jacket and jumped in the water to guide her through the kelp beds and lead her to shore. Vicki completed the swim.

It seems to be the support that makes all the difference, whether the support is in the water or on the shore.

During Vicki’s 80-kilometer butterfly shoreline swim in Lake Ontario, there were people yelling, screaming, cheering her on, and waving anything red they could find. It dawned on her that no matter how tired or sore she was, there was no way she could ever give up with that kind of support.

Photo by Boris Spremo

Making a difference

The first swim Vicki ever did was to see what she was capable of doing. From then on, she knew that she could not only complete incredible swims, but that she could also use her swims to make a difference in the world.

Giving back was a natural step for Vicki, because she grew up in a family where volunteering and helping others was part of everything they did. In fact, she started working with people with disabilities when she was only 10 years old.

In the early years of her swimming career, Vicki raised money for Hospice Kingston, an organization her mother helped create.

For her double crossing of Lake Ontario, she developed a partnership with Variety Village, an organization that helps youth with disabilities and developmental barriers accomplish their goals. Vicki helped them start building a pool because she understood the value and the freedom that water offers anybody, but especially somebody who has a disability or uses a mobility device. To them, water is true freedom.

Photo by Andrew Stawicki

After working with Variety Village, Vicki was introduced to a whole new realm of coaching she had never encountered: paracoaching. She realized she wanted to coach people with disabilities and help them achieve their own dreams.

Today, Vicki dedicates her time to encouraging this new generation of open water swimmers, and she’s had the opportunity to coach spectacular athletes through Y Penguins Swimming, a swim team for children with physical disabilities based in Kingston.

Vick has worked with Carlos Costa, who didn’t let a double leg amputation stop him from being the first physically-challenged person to swim across Lake Ontario. She’s coached Ashley Cowan, an athlete with a quadruple amputation, and Terri-Lynn Langdon, an athlete with Cerebral Palsy—across Lake Erie. She’s helped Jenna Lambert, another athlete with Cerebral Palsy, across Lake Ontario, too.

“When people see somebody with a disability swimming, they start realizing what is possible. I love having the opportunity to show over and over again that anything is possible.”

Vicki with Abi Tripp, Paralympic Y Penguin

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