Swimmer braves alligators and ocean swells for sport

Never mind the bruises, the salt stings and the Florida alligators, Beacher Kaitlin Gervais says she’s found her calling in open-water swimming.

After winning gold at Canada’s 5 km juniors last year and a bronze at her first international meet in the Cayman Islands, the 18 year-old Birchmount grad is moving to Victoria, BC this fall to train with the coach of Canada’s Olympic open-water team.

“You never really know what to expect with open water, and I like that,” said Gervais shortly before receiving a youth award from local MP Matthew Kellway.

Local open-water swimmer Kaitlin Gervais receives a youth award from MP Matthew Kellway on Aug. 29. PHOTO: Andrew Hudson
Local open-water swimmer Kaitlin Gervais receives a youth award from MP Matthew Kellway on Aug. 29.
PHOTO: Andrew Hudson

Unlike pool events, where timing is everything, open-water swimmers may face frigid water, waves, or their opponents’ flying elbows. Gervais said 2:05 is a good time for a 10k, but the real challenge is just to be the best on that day.

Gervais’ first-ever 10k was a case in point. Swimming this April at Miromar Lake near Fort Myers, Florida, she said the water was so murky she couldn’t see more than an arms’ length ahead. Organizers also told her something surprising.

“They were like, ‘There are alligators. We pulled out as many as we could find,’” Gervais said, laughing.

“The day before the race we were all warming up on the course and this guy, who ended up winning the men’s race, put an alligator head on a stick and hid behind one of the buoys,” she said. “They almost pulled him out of the race.”

Gervais said moving up to 10k races was like starting a whole new sport. Swimming such a long distance takes extra prep beforehand – Vaseline to prevent shoulder rub, wax to stop her braces from giving her a bleeding lip in salt water.

Gervais said open-water swimmers also have to “feed” in mid-race. Her go-to is a mix of Gatorade, caffeine and Advil.

“It tastes really gross,” she said, grinning. “Everyone has their own special thing.”

Gervais started competitive swimming 11 years ago after doing well at a fun end-of-year race held by the swim instructors at Fairmount Community Centre.

“My parents said, ‘Hey, maybe swimming’s her thing because she can’t do hockey or baseball or any other hand-eye coordination sport,’” she joked.

Gervais moved to the Scarborough and then the Toronto Swim Club, and got special training from teachers Robb Pacas, Catherine MacInnes and Glenn Duncan after enrolling in Birchmount’s elite athletics program.

But it seems Gervais’ up-for-anything attitude has helped her at least as much as training 10 times a week.

She had swum 800 m and 1500 m pool events before, but the first time Gervais did an open-water swim was at a national competition in Calgary two years ago.

“I had a really tough year, and was sick a lot,” she said. “I was like, ‘Why not? It’s the last race of the season.’”

Gervais didn’t win that first 5k, but she did have the best time for her age. That prompted her switch to open water.

But just before a national competition in Montreal, Gervais hit more tough luck – she got shingles.

“It’s horrible,” she said. “It gets in your nervous system and you’re in pain.”

“I see those commercials for getting the shingles vaccine, and every time it comes on, I’m like, ‘Get the vaccine.’”

Gervais’ doctor told her not to swim for a week – a big setback for someone used to training morning and night. She had no chance to swim beforehand and was still in pain on the drive to Montreal, but raced anyway. The next week, she won her junior title at the Ontario competition in Brampton.

Asked what advice she would give to swimmers thinking about doing open-water, Gervais said, “Don’t be afraid.

“When you get into open-water, it is vicious,” she said. “People will pull on you, people will elbow you in the face. There are refs, but sometimes it’s just that there are no lines on the bottom of a pool.

“But there’s no hard feelings because you’re swimming and that’s what happens,” she said. “You gotta do what you gotta do.”

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