Our Coach: Vicki Keith

Y Penguins Coach Vicki Keith’s focus during her 40+ year coaching career has been to provide opportunities that help develop confidence and self esteem while focusing on goal setting, leadership skills and work ethic.

Vicki believes that kids, able-bodied or with a physical impairment require a place where they can relax, be themselves, be accepted, learn leadership skills and allow their personalities to shine through. Often kids with physical impairments have few opportunities where they can go to learn about, and explore their physical impairment.

Being part of a team and working with a coach with a strong, positive ideology says Vicki, makes a world of difference in their lives. It provides social opportunities, lifelong friendships, and an opportunity to offer support rather than always being the one who is being supported. It gives young people the opportunity to find joy and see success but also the opportunity to face challenges, struggle, tackle roadblocks, be disappointed, set goals, feel defeat, and be triumphant all in a positive and inclusive environment.

Many kids with impairments are bullied at school. They eat lunch alone. They are teased, ridiculed, punched and ignored. A report in the Globe and Mail in 2012 stated that 53% of kids with a disability don’t have a friend.  A sports program can be a safe place where they can relax, be themselves, be accepted, learn leadership skills and allow their personalities to shine through.

A coach and a strong positive sporting environment can make a hugely positive impact on these young peoples lives. It can help young people concentrate on abilities, not their impairment, focus on potential, not obstacles and identify possibilities, where others perceive impossibilities or road blocks.

Vicki’s Biography

Vicki Keith C.M., O. Ont., LLD., ChPC

Vicki Keith was described as an unlikely athlete, not apt to succeed in any sport. In school she was last to be picked for teams. No matter how this made her feel, she refused to accept the negative comments made about her abilities.

Today, she is one of the most successful marathon swimmers in the history of the sport, holding 18 world records. Constantly surpassing the records of other swimmers as well as previous records of her own, Vicki became, to many, the face of marathon swimming in Canada. Her most recognised accomplishments include becoming the first person to swim across all five Great Lakes in 1988 and for being the only person to complete the 104 km double crossing of Lake Ontario.

After her marathon swimming career, Vicki took on a new challenge – coaching competitive swimming to a team of athletes with physical impairments. While coaching at Variety Village, in the early 90’s, Vicki found that swimmers with physical impairments were invited to participate in only 3 meets a year…all of them for disabled athletes only. She immediately started pushing the boundaries, by getting the team invited to able-bodied meets. Although there were some initial difficulties, the swimmers quickly became accepted and welcomed as equals at able-bodied meets. This pattern was continued by the Provincial and National bodies to the point that swimming is now the most integrated sport in Canada.

As of February 2016, Vicki had coached 24 para-swimmers to the national level in competitive swimming, 5 athletes to the international level in competitive swimming and triathlon and 4 para- athletes to world records in marathon swimming.

These athletes include Carlos Costa, a double leg amputee, who became the first athlete with a physical impairment to swim across Lake Ontario, Ashley Cowan, a 15 year old quadruple amputee who swam across Lake Erie, Terry-Lynn Langdon, a young woman with Cerebral Palsy who swam the 20 km crossing of Lake Erie and Jenna Lambert who is the first female with a physical impairment to swim across Lake Ontario. Vicki also coached able-bodied athletes Natalie Lambert and John Munro to world records in marathon swimming.

Vicki’s dream has always been to make a difference in other people’s lives. In 2005, when the need for new opportunities for children with physical impairments in Kingston, Ontario became apparent, Vicki came out of swimming retirement, and spent 63 hours and 40 minutes in Lake Ontario, completing 80.2 kilometres butterfly, setting 2 world records and raising over $260,000 for the YMCA of Kingston. This brought her lifetime fundraising total to over one million dollars.

Vicki has been appointed as a member of the Order of Canada and has earned an honourary doctorate from Queen’s University in recognition of her outstanding achievements and service. In 1996 she was inducted into the Terry Fox Hall of Fame, and in 1998 she had her most famous arrival and departure point renamed after her. The headlands of the Leslie Street Spit in Toronto, are now called Vicki Keith Point. In 2019, Vicki was inducted into Canada’s Sports hall of Fame.

Hear Vicki’s Ted Talk: