By Jim Morris
It was 3 a.m. and Vicki Keith was disoriented, caught upside down in a wave. She was vomiting underwater and scrambling to find air.
Many people would panic. For Keith, it was a learning moment.
When she finally broke the water’s surface Keith found herself battling three-metre swells. She was 12 hours into an attempt to swim 80 kilometres across Lake Ontario by butterfly but knew she would have to call it off.
Just not yet.
After discussing the situation with the crew in her support boat, Keith decided to keep swimming until morning. Once the sun came up, and conditions had not improved, Keith made the decision to postpone the attempt.
Keith still lives by the lesson she learned from that experience.
“The message is you can never make a life-altering decision when you are at your emotional lowest,” she said. “When you are feeling emotionally low you need to fight through it until you are feeling better, then you can figure out what you need to do to continue.”
A week later Keith returned to Lake Ontario and completed the swim in 63 hours, 40 minutes, setting one of the 16 world records she holds for ultramarathon swimming.
Keith’s achievements as an athlete and as a coach who has worked primarily with Para-swimmers has earned her an induction into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame.
“It’s an incredibly humbling experience,” said Keith, head coach of the Y Penguins, in Kingston, Ont. “For me it’s a recognition of what I have been able to give back to a sport I love.
“My whole life has been associated with swimming in one way or another.”
Keith was born in Winnipeg in 1961 and grew up in Ottawa, Pointe-Claire, Que., and Kingston. Early in life she realized she didn’t have the speed to be a competitive Olympic swimmer, so Keith turned to ultramarathon swimming.
Her list of achievements includes being the first person to swim all five Great Lakes; the first butterfly swim across the English Channel; crossing of the B.C.’s Juan de Fuca Strait by butterfly; circumnavigation of Sydney Harbour by butterfly; and six crossings of Lake Ontario.
She never used a wet suit, only a bathing suit, cap and goggles.
Keith once spent five-and-a-half days swimming in an indoor pool with only short breaks to use the bathroom.
“I am the person I am today because of what I was able to accomplish,” said Keith. “My goal is to always take what I learned and adjust it so it’s in a competitive swimmer’s brain as well.”
She applies the lesson she learned from the Lake Ontario swim when dealing with athletes frustrated by a bad performance.
“When you’ve had a chance to rest, when you’ve had a chance to analyze the situation, let’s have a conversation then about our next step and where you want to go,” said Keith.
Of the roughly 42 years Keith has been a coach, 35 have been training Para-swimmers.
“Coaching Para-swimming has become my true life mission,” said Keith. “That is the most important thing I do in my life.”
Her first experience of working with someone with an impairment came when Keith was 10 years old. Her mother enrolled her in a leadership program at the Ottawa Y. It was there Keith helped a young boy, who was missing all four limbs, into the pool.
“I remember lifting him into the water, the way his eyes lit up and the smile on his face when he experienced freedom,” she said. “That’s when I started to understand, for people with impairments, water is freedom.”
Over the years Keith has raised over $1 million to support children with physical impairments.
In 2001, she founded the Penguins Can Fly aquatics program at the YMCA in Kingston. The program has become one of the largest Para-swimming teams in Canada.
Looking back on her career, Keith is most proud of the butterfly swim across Lake Ontario, which she did in 2005; crossing the Juan de Fuca Strait in water temperatures ranging between seven and 10 degrees Celsius; and swimming the five Great Lakes in 1988 where she raised $548,000 for children with an impairment.
Looking ahead, the 58-year-old Keith admits “there’s a few swims that just call out to me.”
One is the 180-kilometre swim between Cuba and Florida. American Diana Nyad was 64 when she covered the distance in 2013 in a time of about 53 hours, but was protected from jellyfish by a silicone mask, a full bodysuit and booties.
Keith would make the attempt without any protective wear.
“I would never take anything away from what she did,” said Keith.
“It does leave the door open for somebody to swim that channel with open water swimming rules.”
On the same night of Keith’s induction into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, Ken McKinnon, Swimming Canada’s National Development Coach, will receive the inaugural RBC NextGen Award.
The award recognizes McKinnon for his leadership and excellence in the development of NextGen talent in Canada.
In September the Fédération de natation du Québec chose McKinnon as one of the nine coaches inducted into its Hall of Fame since 1991.
McKinnon’s passion for swimming started in the late 1960s, when his family joined the Beaurepaire Swim Club in Beaconsfield, Que. He competed in the 100-metre butterfly at the 1972 Olympic Trials after which he turned to coaching.
During his career McKinnon spent two years as head coach with the Beaurepaire Swim Club, worked with Pointe-Claire Swim Club from 1974 to 1984, then nine years with CAMO. He briefly coached the Barracuda Swim Club in Nassau, Bahamas, and since 2009 worked as Swimming Canada’s National Development Coach.
McKinnon has been the coach of eight Olympians: Jennifer Boulianne, Anne Jardin, Nathalie Gingras, Karen Ward and Julie Daigneault for Canada, as well as David Leblanc (France), Nikia Deveaux (Bahamas) and Christal Clashing (Antigua).