Tuesday, September 29, 2009
A Night With the Stephansons
Every sport has a family that just seems to dominate. Hockey has had a few Gretzkys, a few Hulls, the Richard brothers, and half a dozen ruffians from Viking, Alberta named the Sutter brothers. Baseball had the Dimaggio brothers, father, son and grandson in the Boone family, several members of the Alou family. Doug Flutie and his brother both played in a rock band, and in the Canadian Football League.
Without belabouring the point any longer, athletic endeavours at the highest level often come from a family pursuit.
Paula Stephanson is only the second person in the world to conquer all five of the Great Lakes as a swimmer. She would be the first to admit that she could not have done it without the support and guidance of her entire family. Incidentally, the other swimmer to have accomplished the feat is Vicki Keith from Kingston.
Stephanson almost fell into the swim game naturally. As reported in the Ottawa Citizen, she states: “I was a competitive swimmer, and I was always better at long distance events.” Keith’s success was a challenge. “It sounded so cool. And I thought, if she can try to cross Lake Ontario three times, surely I can go across it once. And so I decided I wanted to do that.”
The Stephanson children and mother Eleanor all got together recently at the Belleville Club to celebrate the feat. There was a video documenting her exploits, and the exasperations. There was a fine panel discussion involving all family members. There was an evening of good-natured teasing and appreciation of her accomplishment.
Those in attendance were quickly made aware that long-distance swimming is not a one person activity. In fact, there are many people involved in the pursuit. That is where Paula came to rely on her family, and found them more than eager to help.
Amanda Taylor and Sarah Hutchison are long-time friends of Paula Stephanson. Through their efforts, the evening unfolded perfectly for all concerned. Taylor drafted several questions to get a response from the panellists: Paula, her mother Eleanor, brothers Tyler and Sean, and sister Brina Cassan. Paula’s father Owen was also an important member of the crew until he succumbed to cancer after she had conquered the third Great Lake.
All agreed that Superior was the coldest of the lakes, without question. It was 56 degrees Fahrenheit when Paula dipped her toe in before the swim. Sean remarked: “That was the only lake we encountered when I did not get in the water.” Paula gritted her teeth, and spent more than 13 hours in her conquest of Superior.
Lake Ontario was the favourite of most of the family. Brina commented that “We were most proud of it because it was the first.” Paula indicated that if she were to do any of the lakes again, Ontario would be on the top of the list. “I was just a young kid (17), and I didn’t know what was in store for me.” Eleanor liked Ontario because, “that was a whole lot less planned. It was also more prestigious for Paula.” They were met in Toronto by a substantial crowd, whereas not many were there to greet her when she arrived at the conclusion of the other lakes.
Lake Michigan was agreed upon as the lake that gave them the most grief, simply because they had difficulty finding a boat. Lake Erie gave them the most consternation, because of a mysterious shoal. Most had the greatest fear while on Lake Michigan, when Paula was fighting eight foot rollers during a storm. She was pulled from the water at that point. A day and a half later, after much treatment with massage and ice packs, she barrelled into Michigan again for another twenty-four hours, and completed the swim.
Without question, Paula remains an enigma to her fans, and to the best of her friends. She is relatively quiet, unassuming, humble and most modest. Good friend Sarah Hutchison also realizes that Paula loves challenges. “Even in high school, she didn’t like inactivity. ‘Let’s go and DO SOMETHING,’ she would say. She always would make goals, just for herself.”
Along with several other Canadian long distance swimmers, she celebrated the Fiftieth Anniversary of Marilyn Bell’s conquest of Lake Ontario. Bell was justifiably proud of all of Stephanson’s accomplishments, and called her when Paula had finished the final Great Lake. “We are about the same size, around five feet two inches, and we completed Lake Ontario at the same age.” Cindy Nicholas, Vicki Keith, and Kim Lumsden, were there to celebrate Bell’s initial triumph.
All five swimmers spent time with Peter Gzowski on his morning radio show, a real highlight for Stephanson.
Paula is currently teaching school in Ottawa. She dodges questions about future swims. There are other challenges out there; for the moment, she plans to enjoy the Great Lakes’ accomplishment. She is engaged to Andrew Duggan, and plans to be married next summer.
The Zodiac that accompanied her on her swims is currently in dry dock. The crew involved in swim preparation is now on stand down. No one is currently busy securing boats and permission, purchasing supplies and food, packing proper clothing and emergency gear, stirring up the media. Crews and ship personnel, and those involved in transportation are resting. Friends and family that swim along with Paula are comfortably dry, at this time. Personnel from Solo Swims Ontario, the group that oversees the events, are awaiting other calls.
Paula is busy preparing lesson plans for Ottawa students. Maybe, just maybe thinking about another swim.