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  The Unsinkable Vicki Keith
and how she vanquished five lakes in one remarkable summer.
Chatelaine Magazine
April 1989
p 86 to 89

Last August 30th at 6:03 AM precisely, 27 for a Vicki Keith touched terra firma at Toronto's Leslie Street spit. When she climbed out of the cold water of Lake Ontario - shivering, dazed and bloated after 23 hours and 38 minutes in the water - she became the first person to swim across all five Great Lakes.

“I'd just done something that no one else in the world has ever done - something that everybody told me was impossible,” Keith recalls, the thrill of her achievement echoing in her voice months later. “And when I walked out of that water, I felt fantastic. I'd been throwing up for the last 10 hours. Every muscle in my body hurt. I had stomach cramps. I had cramps in almost every part of my body. And you know what? I never felt better in my life.”

Conquering all the Great Lakes in one lifetime, never mind as single summer, is a prodigious feat. Keith's history making aquatic odyssey did more than make the 28 year-old swimmer eligible for the Guinness Book of Records and create an instant celebrity. It shattered the perceived limits of physical pain and mental agony.

Consider exactly what Keith did last summer. Between July 1, when she plunged into Lake Erie, and August 30, when she climbed out of Lake Ontario, she covered a distance of 275 km.

On July 19, she became the first person to cross Lake Huron - an enervating 47-hour trip, during which she spent most of the second night trapped in a world of watery fatigue-induced hallucinations. Even with the shoreline in sight, the final hours were a supreme test of mind over matter. For 90 minutes, her only goal was to force each arm to continue stroking. Over and over, she chanted, “Okay, right arm go, okay, left arm go.” Then, realising she would indeed make land, she began to swim faster, and finished the last km in the punishing butterfly.

Six days and 23 hours after this, defying conventional wisdom that there should be several weeks' rest between marathons, she walked into Lake Michigan's 2.5-metre waves. All day, she swam in 38C heat. At night, she was attacked by bugs that bit into the raw patches on her arms and shoulders where skin had peeled from sunburn. Undaunted, she swam on. She completed the final one-and-a-half kilometers of the 53 hour crossing in 24 minutes -her second fastest time ever.

On August 15th, Keith scored another first. She conquered Lake Superior, swimming the last seven hours in 12C water that numbed her hands to the point where she couldn't hold her fingers together. Her face, she says, was frozen into a grin. She couldn't feel her legs when she finally staggered up on shore. But she had beaten the Lake. “Call it Lake Inferior,” she gloated.

The last lake was Ontario. Having completed a non-stop two-way crossing on August 7, 1987, a 56 hour trek considered one of the last major marathon-swim frontiers, Keith needed to add a little twist to keep up her interest. So, she swam the first 38: Kilometers of the 51-kilometer crossing in the butterfly - in the process obliterating her own 19 kilometer record set in 1985.

What Vicki Keith did so transcends the normal expectations of athletic achievement as to be incomprehensible; downright freakish, in fact. Concurrent with the feeling of awe aroused by her monumental drive comes a feeling of dismay at her self-inflicted ordeal.

Does Keith herself think people view her as some kind of freak, an aberration to provide jaded sports fans with a new kick?

“I don't think so,” she says. “People now are really into the endurance-type sports. They see the challenge, the fight - with yourself, with the elements - making it through adversity. Nobody comes up to you and says, 'Wow! You're a freak.'

“And I'm not. I'm just like everybody else. I'm an average human being who's found something I really enjoy doing, and I'm good at.”

Finding what she was good at wasn't easy at first. These days, she likes to tell self-deprecating stories about what a klutz she was athletically before she discovered judo, then competitive swimming. Born in Winnipeg on February 26, 1961, she was the second of four children and the only girl. She was a pigeon-toed, nearsighted headstrong child who learned to swim at age 5. When she was 16, the family moved to Kingston, Ontario, where her mother, who was a competitive swimmer in her youth, is now a nurse, and her father, Brian, an engineer with the Urban Transportation Development Corporation.

Vicki's willingness to take on the elements developed early. At 10, on a dare, she jumped into the frigid water at the family cottage on Thanksgiving day, water-skied around the lake, then got out and ate an ice-cream bar. As she grew older, she became a lifeguard and swimming coach, then dropped out of a psychology course of at Queens University in Kingston, Ont., to train as a marathon swimmer. Coaching allowed her to train five hours daily once her marathon plans developed.

The idea of turning the sports world on its ear with a series of marathon swims came to her one night in 1979 when she was 18. She did not start training seriously until 1984. Then, within three months, she set her first two world records: the 19 kilometer butterfly and the 100-hour continuous swim.

Today, Keith has a well padded five-foot of 5 3/4 inch frame that is best described as stocky. She has been called a motivated water mammal and owns more than 280 stuffed penguins. She preaches the gospel that nothing is the impossible if you want it badly enough: believe in yourself and reach for your dreams. She's saved from being a bore by her sense of humour. “I guess I'm gullible. I believed everything I tell myself.

Actually, when Keith, a lover of sun and heat, enters the frigid waters of a large lake, clad only in goggles, a skimpy Speedo suit, two bathing caps and a liberal courting of lanolin, she performs a mental sleight of hand. By focusing on her goal, she tunes out cold and pain. Because she is a purist, she won't relieve the monotony by listening to a submersible Walkman, as she does when training, so she plays mental games or thinks up funny lines to amuse the crew of the powerboats that accompany her. To replenish her energy and lost body weight, every two hours she eats hot chocolate, fruit cocktail, soup and cookies. The crew often includes her parents and friends. Though currently between boyfriends, Keith does find time for a private life between swims, and enjoys movies with her friends or shopping for clothes, preferably with a Penguin motif.

Oddly enough, Keith never expected to become famous, and it was not until she completed the double crossing of Lake Ontario that she became a national news item. When I started, I thought I was doing something for myself. Between the double crossing and the Great Lake swim, I decided I could be a role model. So, these days, having quit her job as a swim coach last spring, Keith, who moved to Toronto in November, supports herself by giving pep talks to business and service groups and to schoolchildren.

At the Oakridge Junior Public School in east-end Toronto, Keith is introduced to 300 students as the “first national hero ever to come to Oakridge.” The children are agog as she recounts her summer odyssey. Afterward, they give her a cheque for $400 - money they raised themselves to help Keith's fund-raising efforts for the $5.8-million aquatic wing for disabled youth and Variety Village.

But at an IBM awards dinner at Toronto's Sheraton Centre Hotel, where she receives a cheque for $5000 boosting her Variety Village fund-raising to more than $500,000, the reaction to her is mixed. Many are enthralled. Others observe that as an employee she be difficult to manage and as a boss she'd have no sense of moderation.
It's clear that Vicki Keith is haunted by fear of failing, what she calls “messing up.” Underneath her flippant quip that she became a marathon swimmer “because Everest is too far away” lies the need to keep on proving “I can accomplish anything I want in swimming.

Now that she's licked five lakes, what's next? Exactly what task she plans for this year she won't reveal until the logistics are worked out. However, there are still marathon swims to be swum. And Vicki Keith will tackle them. Because she has to. Besides, as she's fond of saying, “I think people want to be amazed.”