When she thinks back to the summer of 1988, Vicki Keith will likely remember the exhaustion, hallucinations, nausea and aching muscles. When Canadians think of Keith, many will only remember her as the first person to swim across all five of the Great Lakes. At 6:01 a.m. on Aug. 30, Keith set foot on dry land at Toronto’s Leslie Street Spit after a gruelling 23 hours and 38 minutes in Lake Ontario— her final crossing in the five-lake marathon. Afterward, the 27-year-old swimmer said that, even knowing what she does now about the rigors of the lakes, she would swim the 139 miles all over again. Declared Keith, who raised more than $300,000 toward an aquatic wing at Variety Village, a sports centre for disabled children in Scarborough, Ont.: “I had a lot of fun with every aspect of it.”
Still, the stocky, five-foot, 5%-inch Keith last week also acknowledged—to her family’s evident relief—that she needed a holiday before continuing with her training and future marathon swimming plans. Indeed, as the former swimming coach successfully conquered each lake, she grew progressively more exhausted. Keith says that she plans to slow down until early next year, when she will begin a series of international swims, many of them for charity. She added that it was her dream to try to swim around the world—a task that could require six days’ swimming a week for five years—but details of her future endeavors have not been settled. And having reached her fundraising goal of $300,000 late last week, Keith said that she was pleased with the support she received. “For me, I think it’s the only way I can help out,” she said. “And if I can do even a small amount, then it’s worth it.”
During the past two months, the
Kingston, Ont., resident has accomplished much more than that. She was the first amateur to cross Lake Michigan and the first to swim across sections of lakes Huron and Superior—the coldest and roughest of the five lakes. Last week, in Lake Ontario—where she made a record-setting 102-mile double crossing in April, 1987—Keith swam
the difficult and strenuous butterfly stroke for the first 24 of the crossing’s 32 miles, beating her own 1985 record for butterfly swimming. After only four years of marathon swimming, Keith already has two other entries in the Guinness Book of World Records: a women’s endurance record for swimming in a pool for 129 hours and 45 minutes in 1986, and last April’s nonstop distance record for swimming 42 miles in 24 hours.
The swimmer originally planned to follow the same route across Lake On-
tario as 16-year-old Marilyn Bell took in 1954, when she became the first person to swim the lake. But 16 hours into the swim, Keith began to feel ill. She continued swimming, vomiting and hallucinating until crew members helped her out of the water and onto dry land, four miles away from her original destination at Toronto’s Canadian National Exhibition grounds. Still, Keith said that she never felt unable to continue during any of her swims. Indeed, Keith crossed Lake Ontario 10 hours faster than she had expected—although she did not break 16-year-old Cindy Nicholas’s 1974 record of 15 hours, 35 minutes. “The butterfly is very difficult on the stomach muscles,” said Keith last week. “And also, I was exerting myself to the fullest level.”
That was a familiar experience for the woman who says that she was always the last to be picked for teams in school sports—and who nearly always refused to give up even if she was losing. “I enjoy sports,” said Keith. “But I’m aware that I’m probably making a fool of myself.” Having discovered her talent s for marathon swim5 ming, Keith now says I that she intends to go on challenging large 5 bodies of water for at i least another seven years. She added that, when she does give up marathon swimming, she will likely take up teaching or public speaking. Declared Keith: “If you are able to motivate yourself, it’s very possible you can take your dreams one step at a time and reach your ultimate dream.” With the last lake, and final obstacle, behind her, Vicki Keith has taken a large step toward that goal—and has secured a place for herself in Canadian folklore and record books.
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