Return of the Queen
The Toronto Star
May 8, 2005
by Michelle Shephard
Marathon swimmer Vicki Keith once set a slew of records and raised hundreds
of thousands of dollars for charity. Now, a group of Kingston kids will be cheering
for their beloved coach as she jumps back into Lake Ontario this summer.
It's Wednesday night at a small indoor pool, and Vicki Keith is pacing the
deck above her team of disabled swimmers and their siblings. Barefoot, her
hair frizzy from the humidity of the indoor pool, an enormous grin on her
face, she is nothing like that first instructor she had, a ballet teacher
who told her at the age of 6 that she "walked like a horse." Instead,
her message is the same for each of the swimmers: your mind is more powerful
than your body and if you only try, you can do things you never thought possible.
It was this determination that propelled her across all five Great Lakes in
1988, earning her the title Queen of the Lakes and a parade through Toronto's
streets in her honour. A strong mind also allowed her to survive 14 hours in
British Columbia's Strait of Juan de Fuca, where the water temperature of 10
degrees knocked her unconscious at intervals between strokes. Or the shark
cage in Australia that was "like a cheese grater" on her hands as
she swam her trademark butterfly stroke across the Sydney Harbour. She finally
just dispensed with it and completed the swim risking an attack.
But the future of the Kingston swim team she formed 3 1/2 years ago is uncertain.
They've outgrown a pool that the local YMCA is renting and Eastern Ontario
is what Vicki calls the "black hole" for recreational facilities
for disabled children.
So, now 44, Vicki Keith has decided to do what she never thought she would.
She's coming out of retirement.
During the first week of August, 17 years after setting a series of world records — which
include being the only swimmer to ever finish a double crossing of Lake Ontario,
and using the exhausting butterfly stroke for 52 kilometres — Vicki will
take to the lake again, to raise money to build a new pool. Although 14 of
her records still stand, she'll try to better one of them by swimming 80 kilometres
across Lake Ontario, the world's longest distance using the butterfly.
So as the coach becomes the swimmer once again, the swimmers become her coaches.
The kids plan to get in boats, rent campers in case she arrives in the middle
of the night, and shout from the shore as she finishes her swim. Chad Lees,
a 9-year-old with cerebral palsy who says Vicki has more courage than anyone
he knows, will be there. As will 12-year-old Eva Hogan, who plans on going
with Vicki to the 2008 Paralympics.
And somewhere on the shore, sitting in his wheelchair, will be my 10-year-old
nephew Brian, cheering on the woman who told him so many times that he could
swim 50 metres that he finally did.
Brian was born Jan. 31, 1995, and he was beautiful. It was common for people
to stop my sister Suzanne and her husband Ian on the sidewalk to comment on
Brian's angelic face, blond curls and that ever-present big smile. Although
he would later develop into a boy who shuns attention, as a baby, Brian loved
When he learned to talk he would pull himself up on the bars of his crib and
yell, "I'm awake, I'm awake," and beam when someone came in the room,
delighted to share his enthusiasm for a new day.
But even by the time he was 1, Suzanne and Ian knew something was different.
While most toddlers spring to their feet when getting up from the ground, Brian
would bring his hands first to his knees, then his thighs, and slowly he'd
rise. Smiling, always.
His delayed development became even more evident when his sister Michelle was
18 months old and tearing up the middle of the stairs, while Brian, at almost
3, was having difficulty, clinging to the banister.
At first our family dismissed Suzanne and Ian's concerns about his development
as the anxiety of over-achieving doctors with too much knowledge. They competed
for top spots at their medical school and we loved to tease them about their
Privately, though, they wondered about Duchenne's muscular dystrophy and asked
Brian's doctor for a test. Ian remembers the day he was working in the garden
and Suzanne came out back with tears in her eyes. Before she spoke, he knew
Brian had muscular dystrophy.
Duchenne's affects only boys and is a genetic mutation, which can run in families
or happen by chance, as was the case with Brian. As the disease progresses,
the muscles in the body slowly atrophy. First the boys lose the use of their
legs, then their arms, and eventually even the muscles around the heart and
lungs are affected. Most won't live to 30.
Brian also has Asperger's Syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. When
things are out of order, such as a messy room or some spilled coffee, he becomes
distressed. At times, this compulsive behaviour can make socializing difficult.
But while he struggles with reading and writing, he has an uncanny ability
to remember details of topics he enjoys. I'm pretty certain he was the only
student in his kindergarten class who could passionately explain how dolphins
communicate through echolocation.
And every so often Brian will come out with questions so profound, it's difficult
to know how to respond — like the time when he was 4 years old and he
struggled to understand if his beloved stuffed bunny had a soul. By the time
he was 8, he wondered if the soul was made of DNA, because he knew that it
was DNA that was responsible for his muscular dystrophy.
The day my mom called to tell me of Brian's diagnosis, I couldn't believe that
anything physical could be wrong with this perfect little boy. But our family
had faced childhood hardships before. Three months earlier another sister's
2-year-old daughter had been diagnosed with leukemia and was then enduring
chemotherapy and radiation. I should have known how indiscriminate and cruel
diseases could be.
Once Brian was diagnosed, Suzanne and Ian decided to move from Dryden, knowing
that life in the small northern town would be a challenge for Brian. As they
prepared to move to Kingston, Suzanne remembers 2 1/2-year-old Michelle asking
if the change of location would heal Brian, who was 4 by then and being carried
up the stairs for bed at night. "She kept saying, `Brian won't have muscular
dystrophy when we move to Kingston,'" Suzanne recalls. "I said he
would. Then she said `Maybe he won't have it when he grows up.' I responded
honestly as gently as I could.
Then she said `Maybe if you kiss him he won't have it any more.' I just had
to kiss her and hold her and kiss him, and, for a moment, it all did go away."
There is a lot of helpful advice out there, but in the end, it's always Brian
who teaches us how to deal with his disability.
When he got his first wheelchair three years ago, Brian was elated, so happy
about finally having a place to rest when his legs got tired. He begged Suzanne
to take him to the mall that day. I'm sure the shoppers had no idea what to
make of this grinning boy showing off his new wheels and his mother pushing
the chair, holding back her tears.
Every spring, as other children are making plans for dance, equestrian and
other summer camps, Brian is getting ready for his annual trip to Ottawa's
tulip festival, where he spends hours just looking at the array of colours.
He was content, on a recent family trip to Hawaii, to be wheeled out to the
tip of the property every night to get the best view of the sunsets. After
a few of those sunsets, I'd go with Brian and Michelle to a nearby herb garden
where Brian liked to pick some basil and parsley. Michelle would sing as we
lingered there few minutes, waiting for the stars to come out.
Although Vicki's home email address is reachforyourdreams and she ends messages
with "have an amazing day" and exclamation marks, there's a rugged
resolve beneath that sunny disposition.
She's always been very determined, knew her mind," says Brian
Keith, who after so many years is used to being known as Vicki-Keith's-dad. "
Vicki did things her own way." Once in elementary school, she buried her report card in the snow. Marks weren't
the issue — it was a really good report."
She just didn't think it was any of our business," her dad says with a
Victoria Grace Keith moved around as a child from Winnipeg to Ottawa to Point
Claire, Que., but it's Kingston where she grew up as a teenager and where she
has now returned.
It was expected that she would follow her mother, who as a child had been invited
to join the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Then came Vicki's first — and last — ballet
recital at 6 years old, when the instructor told her mother in front of Vicki
and the other dancers, "Your daughter walks like a horse."
I still remember being so totally mortified," says Vicki. "Before
I left I went to the instructor and said, `If I walk like a horse, then it's
a beautiful white stallion.'" She left ballet and spent years trying to find where she belonged. It was always
stubbornness that drove her search for a sport she enjoyed, she says, never
athletic prowess. But there was no doubt she was strong. In high school she
played the flute, but when it came time to move around the heavy musical instruments,
the school announcement would call for "all the boys and Vicki Keith,
to please report to the band room."
Ask her father if she ever had trouble keeping up with her three brothers and
he's quick with a response.
Nobody pushes Vicki around." Full stop. He waits for the next question.
She'd always been comfortable in the water, but discovering her ability as
a world-class marathon swimmer really just came by chance. At the age of 23,
having never heard of Marilyn Bell or any other famous marathon swimmers, Vicki
just looked at Lake Ontario and thought, "Why not?"
Her goal was to conquer crossings of all the Great Lakes in one year. When
she did it in 1988, at the age of 27, the media breathlessly followed her progress
and both Toronto and Kingston designated days in her honour. A day after her
last swim that year, as she was sought for autographs, Vicki told reporters
she was worried about living up to her new status.
I hope I can stand up and use it properly. I wouldn't want to think I was a
national hero and then mess up."
More swims followed. A blue shark swam under her during her successful crossing
of the Catalina Channel. There was Australia and the English Channel, where
she convinced herself that the repeated stings of the medusa jellyfish were
actually a blessing because they kept her awake.
There are 14 unbeaten world records that still stand and a little plaque now
marks Vicki Keith Point at the tip of the Leslie St. spit. (Vicki used to occasionally
polish the plaque during bike rides when she lived in Scarborough.) After her
swims, she began volunteering as a coach, immediately wanting to work with
disabled children. Vicki had decided that water was "the great equalizer" when
she was just 10 years old, helping her parents with their volunteer work with
disabled children. A boy close to her age needed help getting into the pool.
When Vicki Keith was 10 years old, she helped a disabled boy
into the pool.
The way his
eyes lit up,
she says, `I understood that to him the water was freedom.' There's acceptance
in this pool, and even though
the lanes are crowded, everyone gets along .
I remember lifting him into the water for the first time — the way his
eyes lit up, the smile on his face. I understood that to him the water was
freedom," she says.
She started as a volunteer at Variety Village in Scarborough, and then became
an employee and coach. She was also a popular inspirational speaker. But fame
isn't what drives Vicki. She proudly displays her Order of Canada pin on her
golf shirts, but she'll tell you that her first pin is at the bottom of Lake
Ontario, after she lost the hat on which it was affixed.
Vicki met her husband, John Munro, in 1990. Their first date was an Argos game
and by 1994 they were married. Now, at 54, he's a retired Toronto police officer
after 31 years working the tough beats in the sex crimes unit, intelligence
and on the street, and a part-time clown known as Fester Boil, who offers to
entertain children with his guitar and country music.
He also volunteers with Vicki's swimmers, and two years ago she coached him
through his own successful marathon crossing of Lake Ontario, where he raised
money to buy sports wheelchairs for the Kingston YMCA basketball program.
Vicki and John moved just over three years ago from their 800 square foot Scarborough
house, to a modest dream home on Amherst Island in Lake Ontario — population
350 — a ferry ride to Kingston. The island's biggest crime in recent
years was the attempted theft of a patio set, which was returned after someone
on the ferry recognized it and phoned to have the police waiting on shore.
If they're not on the island, they're likely at Kingston's small Beechgrove
pool, where Vicki works as the YMCA's coordinator for adaptive programming,
planning activities for disabled children.
John has two children from a previous marriage, and while he and Vicki talked
about having kids of their own, they decided against it."
I would have had to make a choice between these kids and my kids," says
Vicki. "Don't tell these parents here but these really are my kids now."
Last fall, Suzanne and Ian heard other parents of disabled children raving
about Vicki's program.
They liked the fact that the YMCA program Vicki runs not only focuses on the
disabled children, but also coaches their siblings on the same team, so Michelle
could be included."
The children are not even aware of who is disabled and who is a sibling. They're
all just team members," Suzanne says.
But Brian needed some encouragement to get to that first practice with Vicki.
He was anxious and uncertain about the other team members, but eventually he
agreed to one practice, just as a test. If he didn't like it, he wouldn't ever
have to go back, his parents told him."
After that first day he was hooked," says Suzanne.
Brian and Michelle became members of the team known as the Y Penguins, with
the motto, "Penguins can fly."
At the beginning, though, Brian was more content to float or bob, pushing off
the bottom of the shallow end. He was frightened of any depth where his toes
As his sister perfected her butterfly and breaststroke in another lane, Vicki
guided him through a series of small steps.
First, Brian moved tentatively into the deep end on his back. Then, slowly,
he learned front crawl, swimming near the side of the deck in case he wanted
to reach out for support, which he often did. Along the way he became friends
with the other team members.
During swim practice, the wheelchairs, walkers and crutches are left on the
deck, and all the children move similarly in the water. Also left on the deck
sometimes is a day of teasing or frustration at school. There's acceptance
in this pool, and even though the lanes are crowded, everyone gets along.
When Fernando DaCosta started coming here three years ago he admits he was
a little afraid of the water and preferred to swim alone in a lane, not talking
to the other swimmers. Now, with his backwards baseball cap and sunglasses,
the 17-year-old — who has limited use of one side of his body — comes
to practice as Fern Dogg, teenage jungle gym for the younger kids who clamour
for his attention.
Eva's mother, Lorie Hogan, has watched her daughter go from the 8-year-old
she found crying in her bedroom, punching her legs because they wouldn't move
as she wanted them to, to a 12-year-old with cerebral palsy who plans to travel
to China for the Paralympics in three years.
In addition to repeating her mantra of mind over body, Vicki tells her swimmers
it's all about small, manageable goals. Many of them have heard the story of
one of her 1988 swims, when she spent more than 24 hours in the frigid water.
I remember during my Lake Huron swim when my arms just froze and I couldn't
move," she recalls. "The only thing I could think of was to turn
and look at my right arm and I said, `Right arm, all you've got to do is go
around once,' and it did. Then I looked at my left arm and I said, `All you
have to do is go around once.' I spent an hour and a half talking to my arms
until I could hear the crowd and see the fireworks as I got closer to shore." Her positive determination is not lost on my niece Michelle.
Even if you did a really, really bad job and you're so down about your swim,
or anything else you did, she'll say you did a good job, even if inside she
may have thought you did a bad job, she wouldn't say that. It makes you feel
At a swim meet last November, Brian asked to be pulled out halfway through
a 25-metre swim. Vicki neither coddled him, nor reprimanded him. Brian told
us it was okay, he'd just "do it another day." That day came in Brockville
two months ago.
With my sister cheering and crying in the stands, Brian swam 50 metres unassisted
at a swim meet. Beside him, walking on the deck was Vicki, screaming encouragement
and instructions. Beside her, also pacing and cheering just as loud, was Brian's
little sister Michelle.
At the end he received a medal for the race. He was happy, but kept asking
my sister about "Vicki's ribbon." He was very worried that he would
not receive it.
One week passed, then another. At his third practice after the race, Vicki
presented Brian with one of her orange penguin "personal best" ribbons.
It was then, with the medal and ribbon pinned to his bedroom bulletin board,
that Brian seemed proud.
Vicki's goal is a modest $200,000, which will put her lifetime total of raising
funds for children with disabilities at $1 million — $600,000 of that
to build the pool at Variety Village in Scarborough. But the Kingston YMCA
is hoping to build a 25-metre swimming pool with starting blocks and a gym
for disabled athletes, and her contribution will just be the first step. She
hopes raising awareness through her swim will be as important as raising the
funds. It's one small step on the way to her dream of providing adequate facilities
for disabled across Canada, she says.
Some people, including her proud family who will be on the support boats as
she swims, think she's crazy to try again.
My mouth just hung open," says her father about hearing the news. "I
said, `You're going to do what?'" Vicki laughs at his reaction. Vicki laughs a lot.
She may not have the same body she did at 27, but she believes her mind is
even stronger and she doesn't leave room for failure. "I'm doing it for
the kids and I'd do anything for them.
I will be doing this for the rest of my life."
In a few weeks, Vicki will take her training to the lake and Kingston residents
will be able to watch "Butterfly Vicki" once again. When I ask the
kids at the Wednesday night practice if they think Vicki will complete the
crossing, they stare as if it is the most ridiculous query they've ever heard."
She's done it before and she's strong," says Michelle. "She has set
her mind to it." Chad, who relies on a walker and came to Vicki as a non-swimmer, takes a long
time to think about his answer."
She has the power and the courage," he says. "When she comes in,
I'll be there." Brian plans on giving Vicki the same advice she gives him."
Have fun and do really well." If she gets tired?"
She should just keep going."