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Big commitment: med students prep for Big Swim charity fundraiser

Posted by Kenneth Conrad on August 9, 2018 in News
Colleen O'Connor
Colleen O'Connor

Third-year medical students Colleen O’Connor and Emma Crowley have found time during their clerkship obligations to train for the BIG SWIM, a 15 kilometre crossing of the Northumberland Strait from New Brunswick to Prince Edward Island that takes place on Sunday, August 12.

The event is administered by GiveToLive, a Halifax charity that raises money for a variety of local causes through athletic endurance events. Proceeds from the BIG SWIM support Brigadoon Village, a Nova Scotia non-profit organization that provides year-round camps and programs for children and youth living with a chronic illness, chronic condition or special need.

An Ottawa native whose family has a cottage in New Brunswick, O’Connor learned of Brigadoon Village through a friend who worked for the charity and who participated in the BIG SWIM. Though O’Connor has only ever swam recreationally, the challenge of training for such an endeavour inspired her to commit to being one of the 50 BIG SWIMMERS participating in 2018’s event.

“Hearing of someone else’s experience made me want to try it,” O’Connor says. “When you don’t know anyone who has been through it, you think ‘Well, I couldn’t do that.’”

Supporting Brigadoon Village also motivated O’Connor. “In my future career, I hope to see some children in my practice and perhaps some of them with chronic illnesses may be able to benefit from Brigadoon’s camps.”

A Dalhousie Medicine New Brunswick student from Quispamsis, N.B., Crowley describes herself as an endurance swimmer who “enjoys the calm of spending hours in the water.” She trained to take part in 2017’s BIG SWIM, which was ultimately cancelled due to thunder and lightning on the morning of the event.

A former swim instructor, lifeguard and camp counsellor, Crowley has worked with children with mental and physical disabilities and is proud to support Brigadoon Village.

“When I found out about the BIG SWIM, it was a combination of the things I love; swimming, activism and enriching the lives of children,” she says.

Training for something BIG

After signing up for the BIG SWIM in March, O’Connor began to train, and her inexperience showed.

“Looking back at my training logs, I see that my first swim was only 350 metres in the pool and that took me an hour,” she admits. “I needed to take lots of breaks because I could only swim a length or two at a time.”

O’Connor quickly realized she’d have to improve her technique and couldn’t rely on what she remembered from childhood swimming lessons, so she turned to YouTube.

“Swimming technique videos are a great resource; they even have underwater camera views so you can see exactly what you’re supposed to be doing in the pool,” she says.

As her technique improved, so did her speed and endurance. By the end of April, O’Connor says she was able to swim five kilometres, roughly one-third of the BIG SWIM’s total distance.

Some fortuitous rotations during her first year of clerkship even benefitted her training regimen.

Spending May in Truro as part of her Internal Medicine rotation allowed her to train with the Masters Swim Team and coach Mike McGillivray, whose facility was near the Colchester East Hants Health Centre where O’Connor was based. “There was some one-on-one coaching involved and they were able to provide training schedules and workouts planned for us by the coach. It was helpful to diversify some of the things we were doing in the pool,” O’Connor says of the experience.

Despite challenging clerkship schedules, O’Connor and Crowley were occasionally able to meet up in Moncton to train together. O’Connor also praised the willingness of other BIG SWIM participants to get together to prepare for the event.

“We have a great online network of people who are participating in the swim and everyone is eager to meet up and swim together on weekends or in the evening,” she says.

Emma Crowley


From the pool to the ocean

As the weather got warmer in the summer months, O’Connor began to transition from the pool to swimming in lakes, and was even able to practice in the Northumberland Strait while in Amherst.

Crowley says that she was mostly limited to indoor work during her clerkship, but notes that her training for the 2017 BIG SWIM involved plenty of lake and ocean swims.

While she admits to feeling some nerves, O’Connor credits her support system and her months of training for her overall confidence as the big day approaches.

“I’ve had a lot of great support from family and friends throughout my training,” she says. “Having completed some long distance swims makes me more confident in my ability to do the BIG SWIM and enjoy it as well.”

Her family will be close at hand the day of the event, in more ways than one. The O’Connor clan is making the trip up from Ottawa to cheer her on, and brother Brendan will be in the water with her serving as O’Connor’s safety kayaker.

Every BIG SWIM participant is required to have a kayaker escort them efficiently across the Strait. Kayakers must have completed Paddle Canada’s Skills Level 1 course and participate in a mandatory safety briefing the day before the event.

O’Connor is happy to have her brother along for the journey.

“It will be at times stressful and challenging, so it’s nice to have someone you know there to support and encourage you,” she says, noting that Brendan is an experienced paddler who has done expeditions off the coast of Labrador.

Crowley also feels in safe hands, as she’s paired with Kelly Shannon, her friend and fellow Girl Guide leader. “She is a wonderful support and a superb kayaker – I’m happy to have her by my side!”

"Anything is possible"

While the participants will undoubtedly be exhausted as they cross the finish line, O’Connor is looking forward to getting back in the water as she enters her final year of medical school in September.

“I’ve found that I really enjoy open water swimming and I plan to continue swimming after the event. Along the way, I’ve had many people tell me that they would never be able to do something like the BIG SWIM, but what I’ve learned is that with a little persistence and the right motivation, big goals such as these gradually come within reach,” she says.

“I hope my swim will show others that anything is possible.”