Tom Bartlett doesn’t plan to kick back, open presents and eat some cake on his birthday this year.
Instead, he’s hoping to break the record to become the oldest person to swim across Lake Ontario. He turns 70 on Aug. 11 and has been training for the longest swim of his life since 2014.
The Kitchener resident swims three times a week at the Woolwich Memorial Centre in Elmira.
Attempting to set a new record isn’t driven by selfish desires though. Along the way he’s raising money for the Heart and Stroke Foundation, with a goal of $100,000.
Bartlett grew up swimming in the pool at the end of his street in Galt. He distinctly remembers when Marilyn Bell swam across Lake Ontario – though just nine years old at the time, he thought he’d like to do the same one day.
“I went to school, got a job, had a family, and then two years ago in August … my birthday in 2014, I decided I’m going to try and swim across Lake Ontario. I chose the Heart and Stroke Foundation because I’ve got three brothers that have had open heart surgeries and they’ve all survived,” Bartlett said.
He’s hoping the money raised will be able to help children who need an operation, medicine, or assistance through the Heart and Stroke Foundation.
Bartlett was assigned a swim master, John Scott, through Solo Swim Ontario, to be his go-to person when he has questions about the swim. Solo Swim Ontario is the only organization sanctioned to assist swimmers across Lake Ontario. It was created in 1976 when someone drowned trying to swim across.
He’s one of four swimmers attempting to swim across Lake Ontario this year.
“I’ve been training for two years here and I do six miles every Monday, Wednesday and Friday in three hours. It’s a mile every 30 minutes approximately. The pool’s been very good. The lifeguards have been excellent, keeping that lane free for me as much as they can,” Bartlett said.
Training in Elmira made sense because he had been coaching the adult fitness and triathlon swimming program at the WMC in 2014 when he decided he wanted to start training for the Lake Ontario trek. He has more than 40 years of competitive swimming and coaching experience.
Rob Taylor’s taken over in his place and Bartlett hopes to go back to coaching after he’s done this.
He keeps a log of all the miles he’s swam, as required by Solo Swim Ontario. He’s also been doing a bit of weight training and eating a healthy diet with some high protein and carbohydrate drinks.
Swimming across Lake Ontario equals roughly 50 kilometres, but it depends where you begin and end, ranging from 45.3 to 53.4 kilometres.
He will be doing a compulsory 10-mile swim on Lake Erie in the first week of July.
“I started swimming outside last summer when the water was half decently warm. My son, Malcolm, he’s got a cottage up in Thornbury. We’ve got a boat, so I swim beside him. I’ll go up and down the coastline, 10, 15 miles at a time. And that’s what I’ll be doing shortly, as soon as I can get in the water. I started last week and I did six miles open water swimming,” Bartlett said.
He expects to be doing more open water swimming this weekend because swimming in a pool is nothing like swimming through open, unpredictable water.
“There’s a big transition. This here is like walking on a table top, whereas swimming in open water is like walking on a ploughed field and that’s about what you can compare it to. Unless the conditions are perfect and the lake is as calm as the pool, but it doesn’t last,” Bartlett said.
Preparing for the cold water is his biggest concern though. He’s been advised to get in cold open water as much as possible and even take cold showers to build up his tolerance. He expects the lake will only be in the 60-degree range, maybe 70 if there’s lots of hot weather.
“Depending on the weather I might be starting at 8 o’clock at night and swimming all night and then when the sun comes up it’s a little more encouraging. You get a little warmer and then the last part of your swim is hopefully a little easier because of the temperature. But as the sun comes up the waves get bigger, so at nighttime you get as much distance as you can through the water across the lake,” Bartlett said.
His family and friends have all been supportive of his decision, with friends from way back sending him messages of encouragement, which has helped edge him on.
The oldest person to successfully swim across Lake Ontario was Colleen Shields at 62 years old in August of 2014.
He’s hoping to complete the swim in under 20 hours, but is preparing to do 24 hours or even longer. There will be plenty of people making the trip with him – albeit by boat – to make sure he’s safe.
“We’re given a pill, it’s a little computer and we have to take it four hours before we swim. So it goes to our stomach and then they have a little monitor on the boat and you swim up to it and they just go over your stomach and they take your core temperature and they can let you know whether or not you’re going into certain degrees of hypothermia,” Bartlett explained.
Bartlett is still looking for a powerboat to assist with the swim, which needs to be at least 30-feet long. It will follow him off to the side.
He’s got a 40-foot sailboat lined up to sail in front of him, which is compulsory. Then there will be two Zodiac inflatable boats, one on either side of him with his coach and swim master in one to monitor his health. His son Malcolm is acting as coach and will have to feed him every 35 to 45 minutes. The other Zodiac will be running back and forth to the sailboat or the powerboat. The powerboat will have all the food, safety equipment, and medical personnel on it.
He thanks the WMC staff who’ve made it possible for him to train at the pool and all those who have generously donated so far.
He’s received a total of $24,000 in pledges thus far.
To follow his journey or to donate to his cause visit: swimforyourheart.wix.com/tombartlett.