‘Penguins can fly’


Above: Vicki Keith addresses a crowd in the Applied Health Institute auditorium March 21, 2014.

Where others see limitations, Vicky Keith sees possibilities.

Canadian sports legend Vicki Keith brought messages of inspiration and perseverance to the Welland Campus on March 21.

Keith is not only known as the first marathon swimmer to ever swim across all five Great Lakes and the only to complete the 104-km double crossing of Lake Ontario, she is celebrated for her dedication as a swimming coach to athletes with disabilities. Her efforts to get her team invited to able-bodied meets were influential to making swimming the most integrated sports in Canada. Over the years, the member of the Order of Canada has also raised more than $1 million to support her athletes.

Keith took the audience on a journey from her experiences as a young child who was also perceived to be an unlikely athlete.

“No one ever wanted me on their team,” she recalled. 

She spoke of her career as a swimmer who was told her “big, hairy audacious goals” were impossible, such as swimming all five Great Lakes – which she accomplished in one summer; to her efforts as a coach in helping children with disabilities overcome perceived limitations to achieve their dreams.

“Nothing is impossible if you don’t put limitations on yourself or others,” she said. “Penguins can fly.”

Determined to create a program for the children that is safe physically and emotionally, Keith wanted to make sure children with disabilities had a place where every person was welcome. She launched the Kingston Y Penguins Aquatic Club. She came out of swimming retirement to complete a 80.2 km butterfly swim in Lake Ontario, which she accomplished in 63 hours and 40 minutes. The swim  not only set two world records but raised more than $200,000 for the Kingston Family YMCA.

Keith spoke of several children she has worked with over the years, including as Carlos Costa, a double leg amputee, who became the first athlete with a disability to swim across Lake Ontario; Ashley Cowan, a 15-year-old quadruple amputee who swam across Lake Erie in 2001; Terri Lynn Langdon, an athlete with Cerebral Palsy who set a speed record across Lake Erie; and 15 year old Jenna Lambert, an athlete with Cerebral Palsy who became the first female swimmer with a disability to swim across Lake Ontario.

“I love coaching. I the challenge of working with young people who other people see no possibility for  their future,” she said. “There are no limitations in life. No one can teach this better than a child who has been given a chance and taken under the wing of a coach who cares and is willing to lead the way.”

Her speech was filled with messages sure to inspire the audience:

“Set big, hairy audacious goals;”

“Have fun, laugh often;”

“Don’t let other people’s perceptions of limitations interfere with you accomplishing your dreams;” and

“Focus on ability, not disability. Find potential where others identify obstacles. See possibilities where others perceive impossibilities.”

The event was organized by the College’s School of Community Services, and Recreation and Leisure Services and Recreation Therapy Programs.

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