Breaking Barriers: Conclusion

Tom Hainey Swims Across Quetico Park – Conclusion

When Tom stepped out of the water at the French Lake beach on August 28, he had swum 80 kilometers and portaged over a kilometer from his start on the west end of Beaverhouse Lake on August 24. It was a tremendous accomplishment – especially for someone who was born with spina bifida.
Spina bifida is a birth defect where the spinal column fails to develop properly resulting in varying degrees of permanent damage to the spinal cord and nervous system. When Tom was a baby, his parents were told that he would never walk. They were determined to prove the doctors wrong. The courage and strength of Sheila Hainey and the entire Hainey family helped Tom overcome his disability and concentrate on his abilities. It was a long, slow and difficult process, but with determination and rehabilitation, Tom was able to walk. When he was six he went to the Shriner’s Hospital in Winnipeg, Manitoba for surgeries to improve his walking and kept returning for extensive sessions of physiotherapy. Through determination, exercise, surgery and physiotherapy, Tom’s walking improved. Even with the improvement in the use of his legs, when Tom swims, his legs simply drag behind. Tom swims with his arms only and he literally pulls himself through the water.

Tom's sister Tammy gives Tom a hug at French Lake.
Tom’s sister Tammy gives Tom a hug at French Lake.

Tom was accompanied by his father and sister Brenda on the swim and two sisters, Tammy and Debbie, were waiting on the beach when he arrived and showered him in champagne. The Haineys are a close family but, when he was growing up having three older sisters was both a gift and a challenge. When he was young, Tom hated the fact that his sister Brenda was a better swimmer than him. He joined the Nakokita Swim Club with the express purpose of becoming a better swimmer than his sister. Tom trained diligently, first to beat his sister and then to beat whoever he was competing against.

When Tom was 10, his parents won enough money in a lottery to have a swimming pool built in their backyard. Using this pool the Haineys came up with innovative training techniques to aid Tom in his training. For one of his exercises, they would tie elastic surgical cords to his ankles and to the ladder in the pool. He could then swim as hard as he wanted (often for over an hour) and not have to keep turning when he reached the end of the backyard pool. Randy Makarenko, Tom’s coach at the Nakokita Swim Club, had a mind-set similar to Sheila’s so he made no allowance for Tom’s disability. He was treated as just another swimmer and he competed against everyone. Tom played in as many sports as he could but swimming was where he could competitive and not feel disabled.

Tom progressed rapidly as a swimmer and in 1979, at the age of thirteen, he qualified for the Ontario Games for the Physically Disabled. He won two gold medals, a silver and a bronze. The next year, he competed in the Canadian National Wheelchair Games where he won five swimming gold medals. During the ten years that Tom competed internationally, he competed in three Paralympic Games (1984, 1988, and 1992) and two World Championships (1986, 1990). While representing Canada at these major events, he won six gold and three silver medals and at one time held five world records.

Tom’s sister Debbie was seven months pregnant when she went with her sister Tammy and other family members into the water to hug Tom and pour champagne over his head. Eighteen years later, her son Josh was graduating from Atikokan High School and Tom gave the 2011 commencement address. Atikokan had gone through tough times since the closing of the mines in the late 1970s. Tom emphasized that, although Atikokan’s population was only half of what it was when he was born, the town was showing amazing resiliency. He told the graduates that, if they were born and raised in Atikokan, they had courage in their DNA.

He told them: “Although I am not an expert, trust me when I tell you I know courage. Courage is;
The soldier on the battlefield in defense of his country.
The lady who jumps into the water to save a stranger.
The shy teenager who asks a girl to dance.
And, the mother who looks down at her hurting son and has to be strong.

He told the story about his mother’s courage when confronted by her son coming home from school in grade one.

“After enduring the torment of being the only disabled kid in my class, I went home in tears to get comfort. Along the way I formed a list in my head, my “hate list.” Every kid that day, and for years after who was mean to me was on that list. When I finally arrived home, (because although my parents got me to walk, they weren’t very successful at my speed) my mom was standing at the kitchen sink. I walked up to her and told her that kids had called me names. “What did they call you” was her response. Between wiping my tears and snot I managed to stammer “they called me crippled.” My mom looked down at me and said, “Well aren’t you?” Yup, she went on my hate list as well. But my mom knew that day was coming and I am sure she braced herself and held back her tears, when she spoke. I changed at that moment, I didn’t realize it until many years later, but from that point on my reality did not include pity.”

A ceremony to dedicate the barrier-free trail at French Lake was held after the completion of the swim. Tammy Ellis, Tom’s oldest sister, talked at the unveiling of the memorial plaque to Sheila Hainey. “Most of us, and fortunately so, will never experience the heartache of being told that one of our children will never walk. Our mother faced this with Tommy, but her reaction was not typical. Instead of overprotecting him and sheltering him, she allowed him to challenge himself and never once allowed him to feel sorry for himself (despite his several attempts). Our mother was feisty, determined and had unwavering resolve – to make sure that the spina bifida he was born with did not in any way limit his life. Those qualities of our mother are so evident that they not only led to Tommy’s success today, they also prompted the Ministry of Natural Resources to dedicate this trail.”

The swim was not just a family affair; much of the Atikokan community was also involved. Quetico North Outfitters supplied canoes for the practice swim and Canoe Canada Outfitters provided the canoes that were used in support of the cross-Quetico swim. Numerous other Atikokan business made available other supplies and services that made the swim a success. Don Meany, the owner of XY Paddle Company in Atikokan, made two paddles and donated them to the swim. One was given to Tom Hainey at the completion of the swim and the other paddle was auctioned off with the proceeds going to the Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus Foundation. Frank Covello, an Atikokan businessman, won the bidding at $1,000 and immediately gave the paddle to Tom Hainey Sr.

When Tom stopped competing, with his love of swimming it was a natural evolution to become a coach. Tom became coach at the Nakokita Swim Club in Atikokan – the club that he competed for when he was young. Tom Hainey is currently the Head Coach of the Manta Swim Club in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He has a staff of 15 full-and part-time coaches in a program that has developed swimmers who have competed at the Olympics , Paralympics, Pan Am Games, Commonwealth Games and many other top international competitions. Tom is an inspirational coach who teaches swimming by example as well as by words. Laurence Cohen started out as a swimmer coached by Tom and now he is a coach of developing swimmers. He told me that: “As a club, we’ve developed a motto – it’s made up of three words – Pride, Toughness, Respect. I think that we really hold our swimmers to that …… and it all really comes from Tom’s leadership.”

Tom was instrumental in having the swimmers at the Manta Swim Club hold an annual fund-raising event known as “Kids Helping Kids.” All of the proceeds go to the Children’s Rehabilitation Foundation which is the fundraising arm of the Children’s Rehabilitation Center in Winnipeg, Manitoba. This is the same hospital, then known as the Shriner’s Hospital, that Tom went to for surgery and where he spent many months in rehabilitation when he was young.

Swimming has been a major part of Tom’s life for as long as he can remember. Four years ago Tom and his wife Sandy had a daughter. From the moment Danikah was born, swimming was no longer the primary focus of his life. His vision has widened as his family has grown. Now, Tom is a parent with a child to nourish and challenge – and to be challenged by.

Tom told the people at French Lake that his mother’s determination to always place challenges in front of him was the single most important factor that changed his life. With his mother’s encouragement and guidance, Tom had broken many barriers in his life on his way to becoming a holder of multiple world records in swimming. The boy who had been told he may never walk, with his mother’s guidance not only walked but became a world class swimmer. He used his arms to pull himself through the water of seven lakes in the “Breaking the Barrier” swim. He walked the portages and walked out of the water at French Lake into the arms of family and friends.

The “Breaking the Barrier” swim across Quetico – what Tom called “the greatest swim of my life” – had nothing to do with competition but was all about family and community. Sheila would have been proud that her son swam across Quetico Park in her honour. She would have been even prouder of his accomplishments as a coach, a parent and as an inspiration to others.


This article – written twenty years after the swim – was made possible by the co-operation of the Hainey family and by members of Tom’s swim support group. They provided valuable background information and supplied insights and stories about the trip. Special mention has to go to Mike McKinnon who not only wrote articles for the Atikokan Progress but also wrote a very informative commemorative edition of the paper after the completion of the trip. Photos are by Randy Makarenko and Pauline Gashinski. This is not just the story of a personal triumph but also of how the Atikokan community came together in support of this swim. The ‘Breaking the Barrier’ swim is an important part of Quetico’s history and it is noteworthy that this is Quetico’s 100th Anniversary as a Provincial Park.

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