Monday, December 6, 2010

roe, roe, roe yourself across the english channel

when my editor at halifax magazine called looking for a woman worthy of a cover story for the december issue, kristin splashed to the top of my mind. i had covered her summer crossing of the english channel from a distance and was yet again struck by this amazing woman who does these gigantic feats of endurance to raise money for the stephen lewis foundation and other AIDS-fighting causes. she always is so matter-of-fact about her exploits - but what has to go on in someone's soul to keep them swimming for 16 hours without a break? how do you conquer the aquatic equivalent of mount everest to raise money for people you don't know struggling against a disease that's never directly affected you?

i was eager for a chance to go a little deeper into her immense accomplishment and she kindly agreed to talk with me. it also gave me another chance to talk to lewis, who i had interviewed after his summer visit to halifax to accept an honorary degree from msvu.

i'll print the article below, but you should pick up a copy of the magazine for mike dembeck's evocative photos of kristin, plus a slew of other great stories. then go to channeling hope and donate money to help her hit her $100,000 fundraising goal. and watch this video of her amazing swim.

Swimming Mount Everest
By Jon Tattrie

As midnight approached on July 22, 2010, Kristin Roe lifted her head above the water to try and make out what her panicked crew was shouting from the support boat.

“Swim hard!” hollered her step-father, David Mills. “There’s a ferry coming!”

The Halifax woman was swimming the English Channel to raise money to fight AIDS in Africa, but powerful tidal waters had pushed her into a ferry lane. A ship was bearing down on her, bright lights in a black world. Roe had been swimming for 15 hours and now she was being told to sprint.

The moonlight sparkled on the rough waters, illuminating a shadow on the distant horizon. France. England was 30 kilometres behind her and Calais was still five kilometers in front. The choppy waters had her swimming over waves and drifting up and down the channel, turning the passage into a treadmill.

She was out of gas. She knew that 90 per cent of swimmers fail in their first attempt at the channel. She had recently met a strapping 6”2 Australian man who had been pulled out of the water four times. Physically, he was fine, but the mental strain broke him again and again.

“Can I make it?” she asked weakly as salt water rushed into her mouth. “Just keep swimming,” the crew called back.

Images of Africa filled her head – the women, men and children battling the vicious AIDS epidemic on the ground. If they could stay strong, so could she. No one said swimming the aquatic world’s Mount Everest was going to be easy.

She breathed in over a tongue swollen with salt, put her head down and tried to pull five more kilometres out of her battered body.


Eight hours before, Roe had thought she was done. The English Channel is the busiest shipping lane in the world and the regular traffic of Carnival cruises, passenger ferries and container ships churn the water, sending swimmers bobbing off course. It left Roe constantly heaving up the contents of her stomach, or “feeding the fish,” as she preferred to call it. She felt terrible and just wanted to take a nap. The seasickness meant she couldn’t hold down any of the nutrients vital to fuelling the second half of her trip.

The looming sense of failure was devastating. Roe, 30, had crisscrossed Canada’s Northumberland Strait and the shark-infested waters off South Africa to Robben Island, but she had never been tested this severely. 

She paused to tread water. The diesel fumes from the boat turned her stomach. Another container ship sent a wake splashing over her head.

“I don’t know if this is in the cards for me today,” she called up to the boat. It was the first time the marathon swimmer had contemplated defeat.

The boat crew huddled together. The pilot, hired by the English Channel Association, said Roe needed to get out of the water. He’d never seen someone so sick.

“Well, she’s not dying,” countered her step-father. “She’s not drowning. She’s not hypothermic. She’s not incoherent. How about we do another hour?”

He sent Roe her bottle. She opened it up and took a sip: hot, sugary Earl Gray poured out. Roe had a cup of afternoon tea in the English Channel and swam on.


When Roe had stepped into the water eight hours earlier, she had waved goodbye to the white cliffs of Dover in good cheer. Her elbows, armpits and knees were covered in grease to avoid chaffing, but otherwise, all she wore was a swimsuit, cap and goggles. Her plan was to swim the channel to raise $100,000 for the Stephen Lewis Foundation and the Nova Scotia Gambia Association to fight AIDS in Africa. She had never been personally affected by the disease, but she had been personally affected by a speech Lewis gave in Nova Scotia. She says the Canadian icon inspired her, but Lewis says it’s the other way around.

“The Kristin Roes of this world make me feel it’s all worthwhile. She’s an elixir to me,” says Lewis. “The impact on people is one almost of incredulity: Did she really do that to raise money for the foundation? That’s amazing.’ It almost defies belief.”

Lewis, a former Ontario politician who served as UN secretary-general Kofi Annan’s Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa before starting his fundraising foundation in 2003 for the same cause, says the strength that keeps Roe afloat comes from the same deep well that drives the grandmothers in Africa to raise their grandchildren after the AIDS epidemic has taken their parents.  

“At the moment of truth, when the swim seems overpowering, she draws on a sense that it must be completed for the cause. Somehow, she overcomes the tremendous ennui and sense of difficulty. It’s quite amazing,” Lewis says. “She’s very direct, unselfconscious and straightforward. There’s not a shred of false humility. She cares about the world rather more than she cares about herself.”


As the clock struck midnight on July 23, Roe escaped the ferry. Throwing handfuls of sea behind her, she propelled herself to the shore. The support boat stopped when the water became too shallow. A Zodiac went ahead of her to keep watch on Roe. “Follow the light,” the pilot said as he vanished in the enveloping darkness. Roe had been wrestling the channel for two-thirds of a day.

The green light stick on her swimming cap was the only thing separating her from the pitch black. Just a little further. Just a little longer.  

“Fifteen more strokes!” her step-father yelled from the darkness. An elation rose in her, making the water 
seem like a dream. Swimming turned to flying and the shore drew effortlessly nearer.

“Stand up! Stand up!” the Zodiac pilot shouted. Roe put her feet on solid ground for the first time in 1,000 minutes. Her jelly legs nearly crumpled under her as she staggered ashore alone on a remote beach in France.

It’s hard to grin when your nose, mouth and tongue are swollen almost shut, but grin she did. She did a little dance, too, and scooped up a handful of sand. “Don’t ever forget this,” she whispered to herself.

Roe beat the ocean’s Everest, but she’s got another mountain to go: her swim has only raised $60,000 of her $100,000 goal. To help her get to the top, go to


Kristin Roe grew up in Hamilton, Ontario, before moving to Prince Edward Island in 2003. A passion for competitive swimming dominated her teenage years, but doctors said she’d never swim again after a severe shoulder injury.

Driving over the Confederation Bridge one day she glanced at the Northumberland Strait. “I wondered what else swimming could bring for me in my life,” she says.

Roe was soon entranced by the “magical” freedom of flying over waves on the open sea. Around the same time, she heard Stephen Lewis speak for the first time. “I remember thinking, my life is now different,” she says.

In 2005 she swam the Northumberland Strait to fundraise for the Stephen Lewis Foundation. She then moved to Nova Scotia to pursue her graduate studies at St Francis Xavier University and work at Halifax’s IWK Health Centre.

She spent 2006 in South Africa as a research intern with Dalhousie University’s Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health and saw the AIDS catastrophe up close.

“Each time I go [to Africa], I see more images of despair and trauma, but I’m also left with more hope because you come across more stories of hope. All it takes is a bit of resources,” she says.

In 2008, she swam the Northumberland Strait twice in one 15-hour crisscrossing to raise $80,000 for the Stephen Lewis Foundation and Farmers Helping Farmers. The English Channel was a natural next step. “I needed to test my commitment to the cause,” Roe says simply.

Today she lives in Halifax while continuing her studies at St. FX, although she is temporarily in Toronto to work more closely with Lewis. He regularly cites her as an example of what one person can do.

“She just has this incredible resilience and courage. She’s such a lovely person,” Lewis says. 
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