Anglican will swim Lake Ontario to help end polio

Published July 15, 2010

“I think we’re all called to do something for others,” says Thie Convery of St. James Church in Dundas, Ont., who will swim Lake Ontario to raise funds for polio vaccines.

Last August 2009, Thie Convery was having dinner with some friends when one of them asked her, “So, what’s your next athletic endeavour going to be?”

Convery, 44, said her response came out of the blue: “I’d like to swim across Lake Ontario.” She had been a nationally-ranked, drug-free competitive body builder for years, but she was no swimmer.

But her friends – who, like her, are members of the Rotary Club – pounced on the idea and right away suggested that she could swim to raise money to help eradicate polio. Rotary International is part of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, which includes the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), among others.

“The ball was rolling before I knew what I’d got myself into,” she chuckled. The very next day, Convery Googled “Lake Ontario swimming” and found out she would need to cover a distance of 52 km to achieve that goal. So, she told herself, “I guess I better start swimming.”

This August, nearly a year since she began rigorous training with a personal coach, Convery will – barring bad weather and water conditions – swim Lake Ontario. The feat will begin on Aug. 6 at 6 p.m. on Niagara-on-the-Lake and, Convery is hoping, end at Marilyn Bell Park on Toronto’s CNE grounds less than 24 hours later. The park is named after 16-year-old Marilyn Bell, who in 1964 became the first woman to swim across the lake.

Convery’s feat, which has been dubbed Swim to End Polio (STEP), has fired up the imagination of young and old, not just in her Anglican congregation of St. James but throughout the entire community of Dundas, Ont.

Polio is no stranger to an older generation of Canadians, some of whom have lived with the debilitating disease or knew someone who died from it and they have lauded her effort. But she is deeply moved that even those who don’t know about it, having been spared because of vaccinations that began more than 50 years ago, have been equally supportive.

Convery hopes to raise $52,000, and each penny raised will be matched by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation through Rotary International.

Donations have started to come ahead of her swim, including $1,100 from a 12-year-old boy who celebrated his birthday by organizing a swimming competition in his backyard pool and asking guests to donate money for STEP instead of giving him presents.

“I think we’re all called to do something for others …The first commandment is to love God with all your soul, strength and mind. Then, love your neighbour as yourself,” Convery said, explaining her motivation for the swim. “There are neighbours of mine that are getting polio and we know how to stop that.”

She added, “There’s a saying that God has no hands and feet on earth…he doesn’t have to, because he has ours. My hands and feet literally will swim across the lake so that my neighbours – granted they’re on the other side of the world – can be healthy.”

It costs only 60 cents to help a child get a first dose of vaccine for polio, a highly infectious viral disease that attacks the nervous system and can cause total paralysis in a matter of hours, said Convery.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), since 2008 polio remains endemic in only four countries: Afghanistan, India, Nigeria and Pakistan. However, all countries around the world remain at risk as long as a single child remains infected, warns the WHO. Polio mainly affects children under the age of five.

While Convery will be swimming solo, she will not be alone in making the event happen. Her swim will be supervised by Solo Swims of Ontario, a not-for-profit group that sanctions and assists aspiring swimmers who attempt to cross any of the Great Lakes. The group will supply a swim master, a nurse and a doctor, along with people to drive 30-foot boats (plus two inflatable boats for lifeguards). Port authorities and coast guards will also be notified, as well as shipping freighters. All will help to ensure the swim goes as safely as possible.

Convery will rely on a freestyle stroke she learned from her coach to help sustain her. “It’s a long, stretched out, gliding, relaxing stroke that you can do for hours and hours on end,” she said.

Aside from bad weather conditions, Convery is aware other factors could affect her swim and so she is praying for perfect conditions. “Lake Ontario is a cold lake,” she said. “Cold water will slow you down and you can be pulled from the water because you can get hypothermic.” Waves could also slow her down, or if the sun is too hot, “it can make you sick,” she said.

With less than three weeks to go before her swim, Convery – who runs her own financial advisory company – said she is “feeling great.” She has been buoyed by the support she has received even from people she doesn’t know. One person sent photographs of her trip to India, which showed beggars on the streets who had been stricken by polio and now pulled themselves along on their hands, dragging their legs. That, Convery said, serves as a strong reminder about why she and many others are doing their part to help end polio.

In 2008, another Anglican, Ramesh Ferris, undertook an epic 7,100-km hand-cycling journey across Canada and raised $300,000 for polio eradication, education and rehabilitation.

Ferris, himself a polio survivor, wrote a book, Better Than Cure, which documents the 173 days he spent on the road. Convery said she has been reading the book for inspiration and recently received a phone message from Ferris, wishing her the best of luck in her own campaign against polio.

To learn more about Thie Convery’s Swim to End Polio (STEP), click here.

For a Google map view of her swim, click here.


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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