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How to swim the five Great Lakes

The original article by Alison Korn is posted on The Ottawa Citizen since September 7, 2009

Paula Stephanson's formula is simple: Train hard. Eat well. Don't quit

Paula Stephanson's five amazing Great Lakes swims are fuelled by plain pasta, rewarded by Hawaiian pizza, and enabled by 20 years of swim training — some of it at the Walter Baker Sports Centre in Barrhaven.

No exotic supplements, expensive protein shakes, or secret workouts -- just tons of mileage, a common-sense approach to nutrition, and a definite stubbornness.

"Try and tell me I can't do something and I'll try to prove you wrong," Stephanson laughs. "I don't take anything at all. If I'm getting sick, I'll try and drink a lot of orange juice to fight it, but that's about it."

On Aug. 24, the Ottawa supply teacher became only the second person, after famed Canadian swimmer Vickie Keith, to swim all five Great Lakes. She took 25 hours and 38 minutes to make a 56-kilometre crossing of Lake Michigan.

Stephanson, 30, insists there's nothing magical about her training or nutritional regimen that enables her to power her 5-foot-2, 150-pound frame across cold, murky, deep lakes for 24-odd hours at a time. Of course, she does have 20 solid years of swimming experience in those shoulders, which her physiotherapist laments are "messed up."

Originally from Belleville, Stephanson started swimming competitively there at age 10. Now living in Ottawa, she swims three or four evenings a week with the Nepean Masters Swim Club, for 75 to 90 minutes per session.

But churning back and forth in the clear, chlorinated pool in the Walter Baker Sports Centre doesn't completely prepare a person for swimming the Great Lakes — the major differences being those lakes are colder, murkier, wavy and huge. So, as soon as the school year was over this year, Stephanson moved back home with her mother in Belleville so she could train regularly in Lake Ontario.

With her mom chugging nearby in an 18-foot motor boat for safety, Stephanson swam in that Great Lake four times a week for two months. Every swim was two or three hours, and up to 10 kilometres. In mid-July, about a month before the big crossing, she did a six-hour test swim.

"To do a marathon swim you have to train in a similar body of water to what you're going to do it in," Stephanson says. "The most important thing is to be able to survive in that body of water. In the Great Lakes you have to get used to how cold the water is and the waves and the currents.

"Really, it's just putting in the mileage and knowing you can swim for three hours and it's not really a big deal."

Stephanson is matter-of-fact about her capabilities, her nutrition and her lifestyle. Unlike some elite athletes, she doesn't bother with vitamins or supplements or have a special diet; she just eats mainstream, healthy food.

Stephanson's build is ideal for what she does. "I'm not the ideal size and shape for a swimmer at all," she says. "Most competitive swimmers are going to be really tall and lean and have big strong shoulders. I was never going to be an Olympic swimmer, but the years of swimming have given me the shoulders. People used look at me in the store and say, 'You're a swimmer.' I'm older now and I've put on a little bit more weight, so it's not quite the same."

A little extra weight is not a bad thing because it keeps a swimmer warmer in cold water.

"It seems when you look at marathon swimmers, a lot of them are shorter and have a little extra weight on," Stephanson says. "Fat floats more than muscle ... (but) it's more weight that you've got to pull through the water. Every stroke you take you've got to pull whatever weight you are."

During pool training with her club, Stephanson varies her strokes with the swimmers around her. She likes the back crawl. But during a lake swim, she'll swim only front crawl, anywhere from 49 to 55 strokes a minute.

"I find freestyle is the fastest stroke; it's easier to get in to a rhythm," Stephanson says. "I find once I'm going with that, I don't like to change."

During training, she made snacks to eat immediately after getting out of the water. She'd drink water or Gatorade, have nuts or crackers, and then go home for a "normal lunch" like soup or a sandwich.

"After I did the six-hour (practice) swim I was like, 'I'll eat whatever I want, I don't care,' but for the most part I still tried to watch what I ate," Stephanson says. "In preparing for the actual swim I ate what I knew I needed."

In the hours before a long-distance swim, she sticks to plain pasta, since meats or sauces would upset her stomach during the swim.

These days, Stephanson is resting -- she couldn't lift her arms for a few days after the crossing -- and is going back to physiotherapy at the Nepean Sports Medicine Centre.

She knows it was her belief in herself that allowed her to accomplish what she has.

"It's believing that when you get in on one side you're not going to get out until you see the other bank. If you give yourself an out, you're putting doubt in yourself and you're not going to make it.

"I'm one of those people, if I start something, I hate to leave it unfinished. Even if I read a book and I hate it, I will read it all to the end because I hate leaving unfinished things."

Paula Stephanson's Motivational Tips

  • "You really can do just about anything you put your mind to. I have a friend this year who had never run in her life and she decided she was going to do a marathon. She did a learn-to-run program and through the year she just kept going, increasing her distances, and she did it, she completed a marathon."
  • "I think if you have a belief in yourself and just train properly, you can do anything you want to."
  • "Everything in moderation. The amount you train, the amount you eat, you've got to be able to fit in to your lifestyle. Something like just going out swimming for a couple hours a week is getting you moving, which is something everybody needs. We've become too much of a TV-watching society."
  • On will power: "It has to be your decision. Other people can tell you it would be good for you as much as they want but until you yourself decide 'I'm going to do this,' and you really put 100-per-cent effort in to it, that's when it's going to happen."
  • "Start small. Set a little goal for yourself and when you've achieved that, that set a bigger one. You don't have to on the first day say, 'I want to run a marathon.' You can say, 'I'm going to learn to run.' Baby steps."