Swimmer Vicki Keith reflects on Great Lakes crossings of 1988

In August of 1988 Vicki Keith finished swimming across Lake Superior— the first person to ever do so. 

'All I could think about is why it was possible, not why it wasn't possible'

In 1988, Vicki Keith crossed all 5 Great Lakes. (

In August of 1988 Vicki Keith finished swimming across Lake Superior—  the first person to ever do so. 

But that achievement wasn't a standalone. That summer, Keith swam across all five of the Great Lakes.

She told CBC's Up North that the idea of crossing the lakes began as a joke soon after she had completed her double crossing of Lake Ontario in 1987. 

"A group of my friends got together and were trying to come up with the most ridiculous impossible goal to suggest to me," Keith said. "They said I should swim across all five Great Lakes in one summer, and they thought it was a joke."

"But I went out the next day and I bought a map of the Great Lakes and I nailed it to my living room wall and I drew a line across each one of the Great Lakes," she said. "I looked and 'I said I can do this.'"

Swimmer Keith completes Great Lakes crossing

2 years ago
Duration 1:01
Swimmer Keith completes Great Lakes crossing 1:01

An impossible task

Keith said experts immediately weighed in, telling her it was an impossible task.

"They were saying you can't do that many ultra marathons in a two-month period," she said. "And all I could think about is why it was possible, not why it wasn't possible."

She completed crossings of 20 hours (Lake Erie,) 47 hours (Lake Huron,) 48 hours (Lake Michigan,) 14 hours (Lake Superior) and 32 hours (Lake Ontario.) 

Keith said she remembers a moment from her Superior crossing, when the lake's temperature dipped to 15 degrees Celsius following a huge summer storm. The waves had become so high that her planned crossing was delayed a couple of days.

"There were huge logs in the lake that had been washed in from the storm," Keith said. "My crew members were actually whistling as we got close to each log so that I could swim around them."

"One time they whistled, I looked up and it wasn't a log. It was a little wee branch. The crew was just having fun."

"So I immediately went into dog paddle, barked a couple of times, picked up the branch in my teeth and brought it over to them."

"I always thought it was important to have fun." 

Keith finishes portion of Superior

2 years ago
Duration 1:04
Keith finishes portion of Superior 1:04

About more than just the swimming, Keith says

But as she crossed the lakes, one by one, and Canadians began to tune into her journey, she said it became apparent that it was about more than just swimming. 

Keith said throughout her swimming career, she was able to raise over $1 million for programs to help kids with disabilities.

She's now taking her lessons of persistence and determination to a group called the Kingston Y Penguins in Kingston, a swim team for children with physical disabilities. 

The Penguins have had over 20 athletes qualify and compete at the national level, and two have set world records in marathon swimming.

"I think the benefits [of the Great Lakes crossings] for me were emotional. What it took to be able to set a goal and reach for it and to move forward until I was successful with it," she said. 

"I think that's brought me into my coaching career, and the opportunity to share that information with my young athletes that I'm working with."

"So it's that personal growth, but personal growth always takes you into the opportunity to help others."


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