Susanne’s Great Lake Swim

by admin on January 20, 2011

In July 2007 Susanne Robinson, a Bowmanville resident, wife, and mother of two, took on the challenge of swimming across Lake Erie. On that bight sunny day Susanne her coach Karen Hillis of the Clarington Swim club, along with friends and family crossed the Lake in a record breaking time of 8 hours and 14min. The 20 km swim was very successful, and lots of fun. It was not long after completing this swim that Susanne and her coach decided that they needed a little bit more of a challenge.

This year Susanne, her friends,family, coach and support team plan on challenging another lake, the grand daddy  of them all, Lake Ontario on August 10, 2010.  A 52km swim across one of the most unpredictable and formidable bodies of water around. The traditional course follows the route used by 16-year-old Marilyn Bell on the first successful crossing of the lake which occurred on 8-9 September 1954. This route starts in the south at Niagara-on-the-Lake in the mouth of the Niagara River. The finishing point is approximately 51 km away at, fittingly, Marilyn Bell Park in Toronto.

The Swim Master, John Munroe, there to oversee that Solo Swim Ontario rules were being followed and that the swim could be labelled a legitimate Lake Ontario crossing, called her over. A call had just come in on his cell from Vicki Keith, who, busy with the Para Worlds Swimming Team in Germany , had made time to send her best wishes for a successful crossing. Okay, now she was really nervous.

“Rock and roll, Sunshine” called out her long time coach and friend, Karen Stinson, from her seat on the kayak, it was time to go. Along with the kayak, she would be accompanied by a sail boat (Whale Song 2 captained by Frank Smart) navigating out in front, a speed boat (Endurance, captained by Neil McLaughlin) in the event a sudden evacuation was required, and two zodiacs which ferried information, people and supplies between the boats. Her support team was made up of the boat crews, her family – parents Linda and Eric, brother Sean, sister Cheryl – her coach Karen, and 3 members of the Clarington Swim Club – Dave, Brad and John, where she trains. 15 people in total there to try to help make her goal a reality, to make her dream come true. The water was agreeably warm and calm as she entered and took her first strokes. She knew she was going out too fast but was so excited she really couldn’t help it, besides her coach would settle her down into the stroke rate and distance per stroke they had been working on for years. Sure enough the yellow whistle Coach Karen wore around her neck sounded, her signal telling Susanne to stop and get something (food, warm drink, pep talk, lecture, kick in the butt), and she looked up knowing what she’d hear, “Slow down Sunshine it’s not exactly a sprint you know.”

The crossing from Niagara on the Lake to Toronto is 52km of unpredictable water. Some things are known – the current from the Niagara River helps you at the start, gives you a push in the right direction, and the last 5 km are tough as the currents push against you and the water temperature typically drops. The rest is up to the Lake herself, and she can be moody. Another swimmer had attempted a crossing just 3 days earlier and had to pulled out after 10 km due to 2m swells. A week earlier a swimmer failed due to extremely cold water temperatures. In fact there hadn’t been a successful crossing yet this season, and only one person made it last season. Since Marilyn Bell made her historic first crossing in 1954, only 52 swimmers had made it, many, many more having tried and failed. A few of those failures would be because swimmers were unprepared physically, some would have failed because the Lake or the weather wouldn’t let it happen, and the rest failed because they couldn’t handle the mental and emotional aspects of pushing their body to its limit, and then having to ask it for more.

The Lake had been in a pretty good mood for 45kms of Susanne’s crossing. In fact the surface had sometimes turned to glass, and the air and water temperatures had been good and warm enough. But 20 hours of swimming takes an enormous physical and mental toll. She was cold to her core, her muscles were stiff and sore, her stomach rebelling, her mind was playing tricks on her. That last 5 kms where the current goes against you, and the water turns bitterly cold appeared insurmountable. Twice now she and her coach, who was off the kayak and in the water beside her (not a good sign), had headed into that current . Twice she had been unable to make any progress towards that elusive shore, and it dawned on her that failure, to this point never considered, seemed a real option. Lots of people fail the challenge of the Lake right at this spot, it is just too cold, it is just too hard. Her gagging subsided and coach wasn’t interested in hearing her explanation of how it was hard to breathe. She heard voices in her head – her parents’, her coach’s, Vicki’s, her pacer’s, training partners over the year’s, her boxing buddy’s, her children’s – every voice of encouragement that over the years had together brought her to this spot, to this moment. “This is it girl, this is why you’re here, this is what you came here to experience. How do you cope when faced with the insurmountable? We think you can do it, that you are tough enough, you think you can do it, and in 30 minutes we will know whether we were right or wrong, you’ll have the answer to your question. This is a defining moment that you created for yourself through many years and now 45 kms of effort – so get to it”.

Susanne put her head down and started to swim against the current – one last time, one last attempt, she knew there wouldn’t be another one in her. As she swam she repeated to herself and to the Lake over and over – “Let me in, let me in, let me in.” Time became suspended, she lost herself in the effort, all she had, all she was, in one last push. Those watching her could see she was making some forward progress, they started to cheer, to yell for her to keep going, to keep trying. She couldn’t hear them, but maybe she knew they were cheering. Nothing else existed except the extreme effort of one pull, then another, then another, one after the other, she must not stop, she must not quit, “let me in”. The whistle was blowing again, she could hear it, but she ignored it and kept swimming. The damn whistle again and she lifted her head. Karen was yelling at her that she had made it through the current, that she could safely take a break. Susanne asked her if she was sure, because she knew couldn’t start that effort again, but could keep going right now for a few more strokes if she needed to. “Yes, yes can’t you feel it?” She couldn’t feel it, she couldn’t feel anything except pain and cold and fatigue. 4 more kms of swimming through frigid water, and even half a dozen strokes of butterfly brought her to the landing at, fittingly, Vicki Keith Point. On Wednesday, August 11th, after 24 hours and 28 minutes of swimming, to the horns from the boats and the cheers of her 15 person crew, she stood upright on wobbling legs and hoisted a rock over her head before allowing herself to succumb, collapsing into her family’s arms. She had the answer to her question.

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