Breaking Barriers: Tom Hainey Swims Across Quetico Park


On May 10, 1992, Sheila Hainey decided to go to town during her lunch hour to pick up some bedding plants for her garden. She was an avid gardener and she was concerned that if she waited until after work the plants would be sold out.Sheila worked at Quetico Park’s Nym Lake entry station and it was only fifteen minutes to Atikokan. On her way to town something unexpected happened. For reasons unknown, Sheila lost control of her car and it plowed through many guard railings. Her car hit a rock cut and Sheila was dead when help arrived.

Sheila was only fifty-two years old. Her death was devastating not only to her family but to the entire community as well. Sheila had an outgoing personality, was well known in Atikokan and was active in community affairs. Both Sheila and her husband Tom Hainey were born in Scotland. They met in Thunder Bay, Ontario where they married and they moved to nearby Atikokan when Tom took a job in the iron ore mine outside of town. Tom worked as a mechanic in the Caland Iron Ore Mine until it closed in the late 1970’s and then he opened a small business in Atikokan. They had three daughters -Tammy, Brenda and Debby – and a son Tom.

Tom Hainey decides to swim across Quetico Park

The entire Hainey family had a strong connection to Quetico Park. When the accident occurred, it was the eighteenth year that Sheila had worked in Quetico Park and her husband Tom (known as Tom Sr. after the birth of their son) had also worked at French Lake as well. All the Hainey children learned to swim at the beach at French Lake and had gone on numerous canoe trips in Quetico.

After the tragic death of his mother the previous summer, Tom decided that something should be done to honour his mother and that it should be done in Quetico Park, a place she loved. Every summer, hundreds of people paddle their canoes and kayaks across Quetico Provincial Park. Whether you choose to go from east to west or north to south, it is about eighty kilometres of paddling and portaging to make the traverse. Tom Hainey grew up just a few kilometres north of the park in Atikokan, Ontario, and having taken many canoe trips in Quetico Park, canoeing across the park would have been an easy trip for him. Tom Hainey, however, decided to do something more innovative.

He chose to swim. Tom had been a highly successful competitive swimmer who had won gold medals in both national and international events. Tom decided that using his swimming ability to swim across Quetico would be a challenging and innovative way to honour his mother. In addition to people leisurely paddling across the park, canoeists had raced from Ely, Minnesota across the Boundary Water Canoe Area (BWCA) and Quetico Park to Atikokan, Ontario in the 1960’s. Winter enthusiasts have also skied and snowshoed the length of the park. As far as Tom could determine, no one had swum across Quetico Park.

The Hainey family decided to call the swim “Breaking the Barrier” in honour of Sheila’s conviction that no barrier should go unchallenged. Swimming eighty kilometres across a wilderness park is a huge challenge and Tom knew he had to prepare diligently for this daunting swim. He had been a very successful competitive swimmer, but those events were conducted in an indoor pool. He was now going to be swimming in lakes and coping with cold water, wind and waves. In preparation, he swam over 180 km on lakes near Atikokan. Tom is a strong swimmer and he needed to swim at a fast pace if he was going to cross Quetico Park in days rather than weeks. No one he knew had the stamina to swim with him at a fast pace for hours at a stretch but when he swam there was always someone in a boat alongside him. He usually swam alone but sometimes he was joined in the water by his father or a friend and they would swim with him for as long as they could.

Whether Tom swam across the park from south to north or east to west, the distance would be about the same either way. Since most of the large lakes in Quetico Park are oriented east/west, there would be less portaging and a higher percentage of time in the water if he swam the width of the park. He decided to swim from Beaverhouse Lake at the northwestern edge of the park to French Lake near the northeastern edge. Tom felt it was fitting that his swim would end at the lake where he learned to swim and where there was a new barrier-free trail. When Tom knew that the swim was going to include French and Pickerel Lakes, he knew he should conduct practice swims on these lakes. Since no motors are allowed in Quetico Park, he would paddle with others across French Lake and on to the middle of Pickerel Lake. He would then get a good workout by swimming the long, open expanse of one of the longest lakes in Quetico Park and end his swim at French Lake.

Although primarily known for its canoeing, Quetico Park also has a small campground and a Visitor Centre at French Lake in the northeast corner of the park. In 1991, the management of Quetico Park had decided to build a barrier free access trail along the Pickerel River that would start near the French Lake Visitor Centre. Jay Leather, Quetico Park Superintendent at the time, said that “The idea of establishing a barrier-free trail grew from the more basic notion of wanting to create some kind of natural link between drop-in visitors to the pavilion and the rest of the Park. An accessible boardwalk, with viewing pod and rest stops, would accommodate any visitor to the pavilion that might come off the highway.” After Sheila’s tragic death someone on the park staff suggested that the trail be named after Sheila and once that proposal was raised the idea was enthusiastically supported by all. Jay Leather then told the Hainey family that Quetico Park wanted to name the barrier-free trail at French Lake after Sheila Hainey and dedicate the trail to her.

The Swim

A person swimming across a wilderness park requires a lot of support and Dave Maynard was the person in charge of making things go smoothly. Dave was the Assistant Quetico Park Superintendent and had worked for many years on portage crew in the park. In addition to having an intimate knowledge of the park, Dave had worked with Sheila, and was a good friend of Tom’s. The support team was composed of a mixture of friends, family and a two-person medical team. Dave found that it wasn’t difficult to bring people on board who were willing to give five summer days to assist Tom in his swim – the difficulty was in limiting the number of participants.

Map of Quetico Park swim
Map of Quetico Park swim

Day One

The first day of the swim, August 24, started at Hoppy’s Drive-In, owned by Tom’s sister Tammy and her husband Dan Ellis. About one hundred people gathered to give Tom and his crew a send-off. A caravan of cars escorted them to the junction with Highway 11 a few kilometers south of town. From there the swim team continued forty kilometres west and then south down a logging road to the parking area near Beaverhouse Lake. A short portage brought them to a landing and they paddled across the lake to the Beaverhouse Ranger Station where Glenn Nolan and his wife Carrie Freschette were the rangers. They lived at the station during the summer canoe season with their two young children.

Tom had planned on the first day ending early after a relatively short ten kilometer swim. Delays in getting out of Atikokan and at the Beaverhouse landing meant that they got to the ranger station later than planned but they decided to proceed as planned. It was about 5 p.m. when Glenn, Tom Sr. and Tom left by boat for the west end of Beaverhouse Lake where the swim would officially begin. Tom was aware of the long Native history of the area and he wanted to have a tobacco ceremony to begin the swim. They had approached the Elders at Lac La Croix First Nation and they felt it would be best if Glenn Nolan, who has Native ancestry, would conduct the blessing. Glenn decided that the most appropriate place for the ceremony was at a cliff about halfway down the lake. This beautiful, lichen encrusted cliff has pictographs on it and is recognized as a place of power to the Ojibwa in the area. Glenn noted the similarity between Tom’s swim and the tradition of young Ojibwa men testing themselves with physical challenges. Tobacco was placed on a niche in the cliff near the rock paintings and Glenn gave a prayer for Tom’s safety and well-being on the swim.

From the rock paintings cliff, they continued to the portage at the west end of the lake where Tom stepped into the water and began his journey. Sheila had always told him to set himself difficult challenges and then to do his best to meet them. Tom was confident but he knew that swimming the width of Quetico Park was going to be a difficult test. Wearing a wet suit and covered in Vaseline to preserve body heat, he was on the first leg of a long swim to honor his mother. He had seven lakes, two rivers, four creeks and five portages between him and his destination of French Lake at the other end of Quetico Park.

As he swam across Beaverhouse Lake, he would stop swimming periodically for a drink of Gatorade and a carbohydrate snack while clinging to the boat. He would then continue on with steady, powerful strokes. Tom covered the ten kilometers in two hours and fifteen minutes – faster than expected. At 8 p.m. people at the ranger station saw him coming. Tom’s father jumped out of the boat to swim the final stretch with his son and Larry Gashinski and Glenn’s son Peta jumped off the dock and swam out to meet him.

Day Two

This is the big day; yesterday’s ten km swim was just a warm up. Tom was determined to make the second day a long and productive one. The forecast was for a warm day with light winds so Tom set an ambitious goal. He hoped to cover 34 km and reach Jesse Lake. Tom wanted to travel a great distance on this day so that they would have a cushion if the weather took a turn for the worse. There was a celebration planned for French Lake on Saturday at 12:00 and Tom and his crew definitely planned on being part of the celebration.

In anticipation of the first full day of the swim, the rest of the swim crew arrived during the previous evening and now everyone was present and eager to get started. They reviewed the logistics of how they were going to take care of the details of travelling, portaging and camping in a wilderness park. From here to the swim’s completion at French Lake, seventeen people would be paddling eight canoes in support of a solitary swimmer. All of this had to be done so smoothly that Tom could concentrate solely on swimming. Dave Maynard was in charge of logistics but all team members contributed ideas and they decided as a group what roles each person was best suited for. The entire crew was here because they were proud to give their time and energy to help Tom meet his ambitious goal.

Four of the most experienced canoeists and wilderness travelers – Bob Nault, Tom Nash, Glenn Nolan and Tim Beyak – were affectionately known as ‘the grunts.’ They not only had many years of canoeing experience, they also all had detailed knowledge of the park. Their job was help break camp in the morning and then move ahead of the group and have lunch prepared when Tom and his entourage arrived. They then had to cleanup from lunch, leapfrog the rest of the group and have camp set up, supper prepared and have a substantial amount of hot water heated so that Tom could warm up in a plastic swimming pool after a long day swimming in cold water. Since they were carrying the food and tenting supplies for a group of eighteen, the portages were a challenge. If the swim was a climbing expedition, they were the sherpas.

When they were travelling, they always had a canoe in front that was the navigator and kept the swim on course so that Tom didn’t swim farther than necessary. It was important to stay on course since straying into a wrong bay or even going on the wrong side of an island would add extra distance and additional time in the water. Since Max Clement was a trapper and spent so much of his time in the bush, he and his son Albert where often the navigator canoe.


Tom Hainey Sr. and Dan Ellis act as 'wing men' as Tom swims down Quetico Lake
Tom Hainey Sr. and Dan Ellis act as ‘wing men’ as Tom swims down Quetico Lake   Photo by Randy Makarenko

The people travelling with Tom were broken into two groups that would alternate jobs as the day progressed. Tom always had a canoe on each side of him – his “wing men”. Their primary role was to keep Tom swimming in a straight line. With canoes on both sides to guide him, Tom didn’t have to keep looking ahead and could concentrate solely on swimming. Since he breathed on his right side, the canoe on that side had a person who would give him advice on his pace and answer any questions. Randy Makarenko, Tom’s Atikokan swim coach, was the best person to advise Tom on his pace or technique and he was with Larry Gashinski in one of the right-side wing canoes. They would alternate with a canoe that had Dave Maynard, Tom’s sister Brenda and Tom’s girlfriend Joanne Mucz.

Flanking Tom on the other side was a canoe with either Dr. Henry Vlaar and Mike McKinnon, Susan and Glen Armstrong, or Tom Hainey Sr. and Dan Ellis. One of these three canoes would sometimes replace Max and Albert as the navigator canoe. The canoes that weren’t on active duty had time to prepare snacks for Tom or fish for fun or for the evening meal.

It was important to have a medical person near Tom at all times in case any medical problem arose. The swim was unfolding in a wilderness park and they were always many hours from a hospital or medical clinic. Henry Vlaar was a doctor in Atikokan and Susan Armstrong was a physiotherapist and a masseuse. Since Tom was swimming all day in cold lake water, Susan had the important job of giving Tom deep massages to losen him up at the end of a long day. She could also give Tom a massage during breaks during the day or on portages, if required.

Susan Armstrong gives Tom a quick back massage during a food break.
Susan Armstrong gives Tom a quick back massage during a food break.  Photo by Randy Makarenko 


Dr. Vlaar was concerned that being in the water for ten to twelve hours a day would lead to hypothermia. In addition to the wet suit, they put a thick layer of Vaseline on the exposed parts of Tom’s body – a daily ritual that led to Henry Vlaar being called “Dr. Lube.” It was a warm morning when a lathered Tom left the ranger station and it continued to get hotter as the day progressed. Both Beaverhouse and Quetico Lakes are deep, cold lake trout lakes and the cold water, even on a hot day, took its toll. The grunts were waiting with hot soup for the first break and the canoes not on swim duty would go ahead and prepare a second morning warm food break. Tom was very cold when he got out of the water on Quetico Lake for his break. Dr. Lube went to work re-applying a heavy coat of Vaseline. Tom ate hot soup and lay on the rocks in the sun to warm up. He was eager to continue and was soon back in the water.

His Atikokan swim coach Randy Makarenko and others in the canoes flanking Tom would keep track of his pace. During his training, they had found that Tom would consistently take 47 strokes on each side to cover 100 metres, a speed of about 4.8 km/hr. They found that he was moving at that same pace as he started down Quetico Lake and kept up the pace as he moved down the long, narrow lake. They reached the east end of Quetico Lake before noon and the whole team was ecstatic that twenty kilometers of cold lake was behind them. After two short portages, they would be on Oriana Lake. The ‘grunts’ were ahead of the rest of the crew and had most of the food and camping supplies. In addition to canoes and paddles, there were still packs with some food and camping supplies, clothes and personal items to carry across the portages and Tom wanted to help, but had to be reminded that he had to conserve his energy and simply get himself across the portage.

Once back in the water, Tom kept his rapid pace across Oriana Lake. The 700 metres long portage between Oriana and Jesse Lake is known as the Cedar Portage. As the name implies, it is a swampy portage and the footing is treacherous. This difficult portage was a challenge on a 32 degree Celsius day. Tom again picked up a pack and began to portage but he was told, emphatically this time, that his job – his only job – was to swim. Portaging on a hot day is sweaty work but portages helped Tom warm up before getting back into cold lake water.

A very weary crew found the campsite that the grunts had set up on Jesse Lake. The distance covered and the unexpected pace kept up by Tom meant that they hadn’t had enough time to heat up enough water for the swimming pool. The swimming pool was an inflatable kid’s pool that, when filled with warm water, was used to bring Tom’s core temperature up at the end of the day. The secondary benefit was that the warm water made it easier to get the thick layer of Vaseline off his body. With the Vaseline removed, Tom could warm up more quickly in the tub and, conversely, he could cool down better at night. Due to the lack of enough warm water, they were unable to completely remove the Vaseline from Tom’s body. It was fortunate that it was an unusually warm evening. Even without the benefit of warm water, Tom was able to quickly warm up by simply sitting in the sun.

Due to park restrictions limiting the number of people on a campsite to nine, the group had to always camp on two separate campsites. It was a windless, hot evening and everyone went for a swim to clean up after a hot, sweaty day and to cool off. It remained unusually warm all night, and many, including Tom, got up during the night and jumped in the lake. Tom had a restless night. The insulating layer of Vaseline that wasn’t completely removed kept Tom from cooling down completely during the night.

Day Three

Everyone was up before sunrise to get an early start. Mike McKinnon, the editor of the “Atikokan Progress”, was writing articles about the trip for the Atikokan Progess. He noted that: “About eight of us were camped on the north side of the lake, and someone spotted an eagle approaching our point as we prepared to take down our tents. The majestic bird made three descending circular passes, then swooped into the lake and plucked out a fish not fifteen feet from where we stood.”

Even with the early start, it was uncomfortably warm. Due to the incomplete removal of Vaseline, Tom was warm and unusually tired in the morning. He was uncomfortable and unsure about how far he could go that day. Looking back on the trip, Tom thought that, both mentally and physically, the beginning of the swim on Jesse Lake was the low point of the trip.

When swimming long distances it can get monotonous because you are concentrating on swimming and only seeing what is ahead of you at water level and to one side. Tom knew that he was missing the rocky shorelines, cliffs and large red and white pine that he enjoyed seeing when he paddled in Quetico Park. He was aware that he was on a mission. He knew he would come back and enjoy the scenery, fishing and leisurely mornings with a cup of coffee and blueberry pancakes.

Since loons are common in Quetico Park and were at Tom’s eye level, they were always a welcome sight. Soon after he started swimming on Jesse Lake, Tom noticed three loons not far ahead of him and motioned for the flanking canoes to stop paddling. He treaded water and waited to see what they would do. The loons kept coming closer and closer until they were just two metres from him. Then they slowly sunk out of sight. He told those in the canoes that “the loons are with me.” Coming face-to-face with the loons reminded Tom of his mother’s love of these birds and of the purpose of the swim. His spirit was restored. There was a loon feather floating on the surface after the loons dove. Dave Maynard picked up a loon feather and gave it to Tom at the end of the trip.

The portage between Jesse and Maria is almost as long as the Cedar Portage on the other end of the lake. The team portaged as quickly as they could and were glad to reach the other side. On the portage, they met two men from Scotland on a canoe trip. Tom Sr. was especially excited to see people from the country where he grew up. He was able to have a short conversation with them before he had to get back to work. They gave him a drink – or possibly more than one – of Scotland’s home brew. Good Scotch at any time of day is a treat and at the end of a long portage on a hot day in a wilderness park it was a rare treat for Tom Sr. as well.

Tom and the two flanking canoes were always the last to reach the portage so Tom didn’t get to meet the people from Scotland or warm himself with a belt of Scotch. For some reason, Tom decided to pick up the pace on the kilometer-long Maria Lake. Being a competitive swimmer, Tom usually trained at a high tempo and he generally stayed in attack mode when he was swimming – even when swimming long distances. He found that a slow pace was to his disadvantage. Tom felt that “there’s a pace when you just die … your body drops down, and you end up fighting the water. If I slow down too much I’ll lose the advantage of physics.” The people in the canoes flanking Tom had found that when only one person in the canoe was paddling, they had a hard time keeping abreast of Tom. On Maria Lake, however, Dr Vlaar and Mike McKinnon had a hard time keeping up even when both were paddling. Dave Maynard said that he had never seen a person swim that fast.

From Maria it is just a short and flat portage to Pickerel Lake. From here there were no more portages to their destination on the east side of French Lake. Most of the rest of the swim was on Pickerel Lake, one of the largest Lakes in Quetico Park. Since its axis is east to west, the prevailing west winds mean that waves can build up and canoeists commonly get wind bound. Winds that make canoeing difficult make swimming extremely tiring and hazardous. Even light winds that are not a problem for canoeists can make swimming much more tiring.

In order to get to the main body of the lake Tom had to swim for about 10 km through the Pickerel Narrows. Everyone was tired, Tom included, as they began the swim on Pickerel Lake as the winds began to increase. The combination of tired people, worsening weather and loss of radio communication led to the only significant blunder of the trip. The navigator canoe went ahead to check to see if the narrow channel between Long and Emerald Lake was deep enough for Tom to swim. They found that it was, but a combination of radio malfunction and a bad decision by the canoes flanking Tom led them to angle south around Emerald Island. With storm clouds building up in the west, rather than go to shore they decided to let Tom continue swimming on the route they had chosen. When radio contact was re-established they discovered their mistake. They radioed the grunts, who had set up camp on Lookout Island, that Tom was cold and tired and they would get Tom into the canoe and paddle him to the campsite. They would then return him to the take-out spot to begin the swim in the morning.

The grunts were fortunate in finding that the wonderful campsite on the south side of Lookout Island was open. A fire was blazing, the pool was full of warm water and supper was prepared when the Tom and the rest of the crew paddled in. They had planned to have homemade pork and beans that had been prepared by Dan and Tammy Ellis prior to the trip. When opened, they found the beans in the carefully insulated pot were fermenting. Fortunately, they had brought extra food and another meal was quickly prepared. Lookout Island is named because it has a view to the east toward the expansive, open part of Pickerel Lake. The hot tub was placed so that Tom could look out over the lake while he warmed up and had the Vaseline removed from his body. *IMAGE* What more could Tom ask for – a hot tub with a wonderful view.

A storm struck in full force just after dinner. Everyone watched the storm – the only violent weather of the entire trip – from under the tarps. Tom, Joanne and Brenda went out to the point and enjoyed the storm despite the heckling from those standing dry under the tarp. After the storm passed, there was time for fishing and Glen Armstrong caught a 32 lb northern pike. They sat around the fire in the evening and talked about the day and what was in store for the day ahead. They loved hearing stories about the past in Quetico from Max Clement. Max started working in logging camps when he was fourteen, participated in the last logging drive in Quetico Park in 1940 and 1941 and told colourful tales of logging camp life. As they were paddling, Max would point out physical evidence of logging in the park, such as large metal pins in bedrock along the shore that were used to anchor log booms and the remains of docks and sluiceways visible from the end of some of the portages.

Day Four

After the storm had passed, the weather looked stable. Today was the swim across the big, open expanse of Pickerel Lake. If the wind picked up, this could be a difficult day. It started out cloudy and fairly calm and there was just a light wind when they paddled Tom back to Emerald Island where he had ended his swim the previous afternoon. As they paddled, Tom got a little chilled, but when they reached their destination, Tom quickly slipped into the water and began to swim. It was expected that the exertion of swimming would warm Tom up, but the cold water of Pickerel Lake, noticeably colder than the smaller and shallower Jesse and Maria Lakes from the morning before, didn’t allow that to happen.
Dr. Vlaar talked to Tom and he felt that Tom was showing signs of hypothermia. They radioed ahead to other members of the team that Tom was cold and that they needed to get to a campsite and get a fire going. They reached the campsite where they agreed to meet just as the sun was coming out. Canoes converged and they started a fire, got Tom out of his wet suit, wrapped him in a sleeping bag and brought him hot tea. Hot Gatorade was next on the menu. Warming by a big fire, wrapped in a sleeping bag and drinking hot Gatorade in August in a wilderness park is not an experience many have had. Tom remembers that moment, but he especially cherishes being surrounded by caring friends and family.
From here, Pickerel Lake funnels down towards “the Pines” and the only decision the navigator had to make was which side of a couple of islands to go on. As they were paddling down this stretch, they met a couple of canoes who waved them over and asked what a person was doing swimming out in the middle of Pickerel Lake. Albert Clement told them that the swimmer had been yammering away all morning long and just wouldn’t shut up. When they had as much as they could stand, they threw him in the lake and told him to swim to shore. Albert told the startled canoeists that the swimmer had a long way to go to get to the next island but they were confident he would make it. The canoeists were amazed, scratched their heads and paddled off.

It remained calm as Tom swam down this open stretch of Pickerel Lake. The weather had been exceptionally kind. Except for the brief storm the previous evening it had been unusually calm and warm. They arrived at ‘the Pines’ at 1:30. Since it was only about six km to their destination at French Lake, it was only a two hour swim away at Tom’s average pace. They could have easily kept going and finished the swim. Since the ceremony to mark Tom’s arrival was set for the next day at 11:30 a.m., they stopped.

“The Pines” is situated on a magnificent beach backed by large red and white pine. Archaeologists have found evidence that people have used this site since the end of the last Ice Age. A long, west facing sand beach with flat areas to camp under large pines – it’s no wonder that Paleo-Indians, voyageurs, park rangers, poachers and canoeists have camped on this beach. It is also not surprising that there were people camped there when Tom swam to the site. Fortunately, the 300 metre long beach has more than one campsite and they were able to find a place to camp.

This was the first chance that the team had to really relax and the sense of what they had accomplished began to sink in. Family and friends from Atikokan paddled out and brought fresh food. They had eaten well on the trip, but the thick steaks and corn on the cob brought from town was gratefully accepted. Tom had arranged for white, nylon jackets with the logo for the swim to be brought to the campsite and he presented one to each member of the crew. The swim was almost complete, the pressure was off, and they enjoyed a leisurely evening in Quetico Park.

Day Five

They awoke to another beautiful, sunny day and they all knew that soon there would soon be a large group of people gathering at French Lake to see Tom complete the “Breaking the Barrier” swim. For the last three mornings they had been on the water by 7:00. This morning was different; most of the crew weren’t even out of their tents by 7. They enjoyed a leisurely breakfast on the beach and set off as a group. This, the last day, was the only time that all eight canoes paddled together. It’s only a kilometer to the Pickerel River and Tom kept his usual rapid pace. On previous mornings the grunts had always gone ahead to get a head start on portaging, but today they got to flank Tom as he headed up the Pickerel River. Tom loves swimming in lakes but swimming in rivers and creeks is not his idea of a good time. Throughout the swim, Tom had to be aware of tree branches, boulders and weeds whenever he swam through narrows, between islands, in shallow parts of lakes, and as he approached portages. Throughout the trip, Tom found boulders and branches to be bothersome. Weeds, however, are different – Tom simply hates weeds.

Tom swims toward the mouth of the Pickerel River on the final day of the swim.
Tom swims toward the mouth of the Pickerel River on the final day of the swim.    Photo by Randy Makarenko

The Pickerel River is slow moving, shallow and has a lot of weeds and tall reeds. The river twists and turns and distances can be shortened by swimming close to shore on bends. Although it meant he had to swim further, Tom always opted to swim down the middle of the river. Occasionally he would swim into weeds and chaos would occur. He’d turn sharply to get untangled or simply to avoid weeds. The canoes could not turn as quickly as he could and he would bump into them and be struck by paddles. He would retaliate by splashing water on them and there was lots of laughter as they slowly moved up the river.

Even moving at a leisurely pace, they were well ahead of their schedule when they reached the end of the river. They were expected to arrive at noon at the French Lake beach so they had to find a place to go ashore and wait. Time goes by slowly when the end of the quest is so close and you are eager to get going. Tom doesn’t believe in swimming slowly so they waited, dressed in their new white jackets, until Tom could lead them across French Lake at his usual quick tempo.

Their group of eight canoes could be seen from a long way off. When the large crowd gathered on the beach saw the splashing of Tom’s arms, they started to shout and applaud. The swim team realized that they didn’t have a plan for what would happen next. Tom swam over towards his father’s canoe thinking that he should swim to the beach next to his father. Tom Sr. waved him away since he wanted Tom to have this moment of triumph for himself. All the canoes then slowed down and Tom moved ahead. Mike McKinnon described what happened at this crucial moment. “Finally, a moment I will never forget: We approached the French Lake beach lined eight canoes abreast. Tom in our centre. The distant cheers and screams of the crowd at the beach formed a counterpoint to the steady cadence of Tom’s strokes striking the water. The moment came – we let Tom spurt ahead. This was his, his alone. The cheering grew. Silently, tearfully, we lifted our paddles in salute to this amazing young man.”

Tom raises his arms in celebration on completion of swim.
Tom raises his arms in celebration on completion of swim.    Photo by Pauline Gashinski


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.     Photo by Pauline Gashinski

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.