Famed marathon swimmer and lifelong coach Vicki Keith is a deserving member of many halls of fame, including the Terry Fox Hall of Fame, the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame, the Ontario Sports Hall of Fame, and finally, Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame.
This winter, at the PEI 2023 Canada Games, she joins the Canada Games Hall of Honour for her role as a swim coach with Team Ontario and builder of the Canada Games Movement. She said it is a privilege to be honoured for something that she is incredibly passionate about and has fun doing.
“When I was offered the opportunity not once, but twice, to coach at the Canada Games, I was really excited to be a part of the process and supporting the athletes, both para-athletes and able-bodied athletes, along their journey,” Keith said.
Keith was a world-renowned open-water marathon swimmer. In 1988, she became the first person to swim across all five Great Lakes.
She showed Canada and the world she was unstoppable. In 1989, she swam Lake Winnipeg, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the English Channel, and the Sydney Harbour.
She broke 16 world records throughout her career before retiring in 1991.
While she made waves throughout her athletic career, her legacy as a swim coach has created a ripple effect for generations of athletes and leaders. For much of her life, she has dedicated herself to coaching and empowering young people with physical disabilities through sport.
In 2001, she founded the Y Penguins as part of the YMCA program in Kingston, Ontario, which became Canada's largest para swim team. In doing so, Keith created a community that prioritized building confidence, overcoming adversity and building life skills through sport.
Her athletes have gone on to pursue their own excellence, setting Canadian records at elite levels of competition as well as world records in open-water swimming.
Most of all, Keith is a champion of inclusion and advocates for sports’ ability to bring people of all abilities together. She is one of the driving forces behind swimming becoming one of the most integrated sports in Canada.
In 2005, Keith continued to raise money for what she loves by doing what she does best. She came out of retirement to raise funds for a new pool in Kingston. In doing so, she set yet another world record as she swam the butterfly stroke across 80.2 kilometres of Lake Ontario.
Keith coached twice at the Canada Games for Team Ontario, the first time as a para coach at the 2009 Canada Games in Prince Edward Island and the next as a head coach at the 2017 Canada Games in Winnipeg.
She said that coaching at the Canada Games helped her to identify her path as a coach moving forward. Swim Ontario gave her the confidence and opportunity to learn the coaching methods she wanted to use.
“I had never seen myself as a high-performance coach because I had never seen a high-performance coach like me,” Keith said. “Finding a way to identify each athlete's and coach's strengths, and encourage their passion, vision, insight, and priorities helped shape my leadership style. I learned that leading isn't always about showing the way, but also in creating a value-based team environment, and then stepping back so others can shine.”
Having been impacted by her role at the Canada Games herself, she also appreciates what the Games do for the athletes striving toward international competition. She says people get excited when the Canada Games come up in conversations.
“As a coach, we identify it as a springboard for our athletes as they achieve one level and are working towards becoming more of an international level athlete. These are high-quality, performance-based Games that everybody wants to be a part of. We bring the best of our country together and celebrate not just our athletes but who we are as Canadians.”
In 1992, she was appointed to the Order of Canada for all of her accomplishments. She continues to pay it forward by becoming the best coach and support system for her athletes.
By empowering the future generation of athletes, she embodies the values of the Canada Games Movement. Her experience with the Canada Games stays with her, and she knows what kind of impact the Games can have for young able-bodied and para-athletes.
“I think fondly back on my Canada Games experiences, and it always comes back to being not just about the racing, but all the things that happen behind the scenes. For me, sport has always been value-based coaching, it’s always been teamwork, and all of the life skills that a young person can gain from sport,” Keith said. “The Canada Games have done that over and over again and shown these young people what’s important in their sport and that there’s a place for everybody.”