When she was younger, Samantha Whiteside found a certain comfort in water.
Diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis at 2, the now 24-year-old Western Microbiology and Immunology PhD candidate spent a great deal of time doing water therapy. It did more than just help alleviate her condition.
“I went into remission when I was 6. I had a lot of positive associations with it (water therapy) and I just kept swimming. I’ve been competitively swimming since I was 7,” she said.
Whiteside found everything but comfort in water during a recent swim, having tackled the icy waves of Lake Ontario in July, as one of five Ontario women who set out to do a 305-km relay swim spanning the length of the lake. The team – all experienced open-water swimmers – hit the waters in order to raise money for Because I Am A Girl, a global initiative to end gender inequality, promote girls’ rights and lift millions of girls out of poverty.
From the moment the team set out, Lake Ontario was unyielding, Whiteside said. In the four-and-a-half days the women spent in the water, the waves were tempestuous, at times reaching a height of two metres. The water temperature kept dropping – getting as low as 50-something degrees Fahrenheit, winds picked up and even a storm hit. After much struggle and increasingly freezing temperatures, the team decided to cut the relay short, swimming into Whitby, 60 km short of the projected finish line of Burlington’s Spencer Smith Park.
“We wanted to do this for a women’s charity, and with a female-centered team, make it about empowerment – let’s show what women can do,” the New Hamburg native said. “Mother Nature threw everything she had at us and we pushed as hard as we could.
“If an open-water swimmer was to have nightmares, that swim is what nightmares are made of.”
While unfavourable water and weather conditions forced an early end to the relay, Whiteside and teammates Colleen Shields, 61, Nicole Mallette, 48, Rebekah Boscariol, 18, and Mona Shariri, 18, hope to eventually reconvene and complete the task.
A trip across the length of Lake Ontario via relay has never been completed.
If Lake Ontario is relentless, Whiteside is as well. Perhaps more so. The relay wasn’t her first attempt at a record-breaking open-water swim. It’s hard to say if it will be her last. She has yet to hang up her bathing suit, and plans to continue tacking the waves.
“I know I want to keep swimming; I know that and I want to continue with open water,” she said.
Whiteside was part of a team until the age 20 and for years, attended a competitive swim camp for open-water swimming.
“When I was 13, we discovered I was quite good at open water where I was never great at the pool. I was always a distance swimmer and open water gave distances long enough so I started to excel a bit more. When I was 15, I swam a 10km and swam it really fast,” she said, noting the swim indicated to her coach she would be able to swim Lake Ontario in record time.
“We joked that the coach made the mistake of telling me. I didn’t want to just swim Lake Ontario; I wanted to be the fastest woman to swim it. I trained for a year and successfully crossed (it) in 15 hours 11 minutes and 11 seconds. I missed the record by 71 seconds,” she continued.
“It was really disappointing for me because I could account for more than two minutes at the start of the swim where I didn’t know the clock was on and I just stood there talking to people. For the first week or so, I said I was never swimming the lake again.”
It took less than a month for Whiteside to set her sights on a new goal, breaking the men’s and women’s record for swimming the lake the following year. Admitting she was over-eager and not well prepared for that swim, she pulled herself out partway through. She didn’t give up on the lake then, and she hasn’t given up on it now. Whiteside plans to return to the open waters, likely focusing on shorter distances from now on.
Until her return to the waters, Whiteside noted the relay team still hopes to reach its fundraising goal for Because I Am A Girl. Having initially set out to raise $1,000 for each kilometer of the relay, the tally is up to roughly $25,000 now.