Prior to the pandemic, Margot Begin had never been swimming in Lake Ontario, despite living nearby.
“I’ve always been a pool swimmer,” says the 54-year-old, who lives in Toronto and works in economic development for the municipality of East Gwillimbury.
But when pools closed because of COVID-19 restrictions, Ms. Begin decided to overcome her fear of venturing out into the lake – and coming into contact with the “slimy” things in its depths.
She got over those jitters pretty quickly. The rest of the experience proved to be a revelation, she says – at once familiar and also completely new.
“It can be like hiking,” says Ms. Begin, who now swims at Toronto’s Cherry Beach several times a week. “If you swim along the shore, you can sort of sightsee as you go. I love that.”
Open-water swimming, sometimes called wild swimming – taking a dip somewhere other than a pool, whether in an ocean, lake, or river – has been enjoying a boom during the pandemic. With public pools closed for long stretches, and then often overbooked or crowded once reopened, open-water swimming has been the only option for many people eager to get back in the water.
Those who take up the pursuit discover it is a much different experience than in the pool, requiring swimmers to adjust to unexpected conditions such as waves or currents. With so many people now venturing out into open water, experts stress the importance of safety measures, while environmentalists hope it will inspire swimmers to advocate for protecting and cleaning up their local shorelines and bodies of water.
Many swimmers might think that the gear and approach they used in the pool would be the same out in the lake, but that’s not necessarily the case, says Ian Feldman, a swim coach and founder of Canaqua Sports, a Toronto-based company that runs an open-water swim series.
“Too many people swim alone,” he says, explaining that open-water swimmers should always be accompanied by at least one other person for mutual safety. Wearing a brightly coloured swim cap and a swim buoy around the waist to help make swimmers visible to passing boats, jet skis and other watercraft is also a good idea, Mr. Feldman says.
When Mr. Feldman’s company first launched in 2015, it ran four open-water swim races, all of them in Ontario. By 2019, that number had jumped to 19 such races across the country.
Triathletes helped fuel that surge, Mr. Feldman says, noting the sport gained wide exposure when it became an Olympic event, beginning at the Beijing Games in 2008.
But nothing has given open-water swimming the kind of boost it has seen during the pandemic.
“It’s definitely increasing,” says Craig Stewart, president of the Vancouver Open Water Swim Association.
Jessica Campbell has seen that interest explode firsthand, watching the Facebook group she co-founded for open-water swimmers in Toronto grow from around 300 members before the pandemic to more than 800 currently.
The group includes people from just about every walk of life who share tips and advice about when and where to swim, Ms. Campbell says.
Most are drawn to the water for the same reason, she says. “It’s the adventure of it,” explains Ms. Campbell, who runs a kayak and paddle-board rental company.
In addition to the thrill of being out in the elements, there’s also a meditative quality to open-water swimming, says Toronto resident Brittany Lee, who was a devoted pool swimmer prior to the pandemic but now heads to Cherry Beach two or three times each week.
With the blue sky and sun high above, and no need to worry about hitting a wall the way she might in the pool, Ms. Lee says her lake swims are enjoyably relaxing, helping take the edge off pandemic stress.
“You don’t have the pressure to think – you’re just going,” says Ms. Lee, a product manager in the tech sector.
Like so many other converts to open-water swimming, Ms. Lee has become a vocal proponent of the pastime, often inviting friends to come with her.
Some tend to object on the grounds that the lake is too polluted, Ms. Lee says.
Like most local health authorities, Toronto Public Health regularly tests water quality at the city’s supervised beaches throughout the summer to confirm it is safe for swimmers and others enjoying the outdoors at waterfront areas. Swim Drink Fish, a Toronto-based non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring water that is swimmable, drinkable and fishable for everyone, also offers the Swim Guide, an online tool that includes weather and water-quality information for more than 8,000 beaches around the world.
With more people taking up open-water swimming, the more likely it is that water quality will become more of a political priority, says Swim Drink Fish president Mark Mattson.
“People being down on the beaches and going for a swim is what creates the impetus for government to ensure there’s proper monitoring in place, transparency around sewage discharges and storm water, and processes in place to restore swimmable water,” he says.
In Toronto, Ms. Begin says she certainly has a newfound interest in the water quality of Lake Ontario now that she’s swimming in it regularly. First, however, she had to get over her own anxieties over not being able to see the bottom of the lake and even the idea of sharing the water with fish or other aquatic life.
“It was all an adjustment, that’s for sure,” she says.
These days, her trips to the beach have become a lifeline, as everyday worries about work and the pandemic slip away with every stroke.
“There are too many other things to think about when you’re in the water.”
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