A woman from Kingston who became the first female swimmer with a physical disability to swim across Lake Ontario when she was only 15 years old was awarded a Meritorious Service Medal from Gov. Gen. David Johnston at a ceremony Friday morning. The medal recognizes Canadians who have accomplished exceptional deeds.
Jenna Lambert completed the 32-hour swim in 2006. She was a member of the Kingston Y Penguins Aquatic Club and her swim fundraised over $210,000 to build a new pool at the Kingston Family YMCA.
Lambert has cerebral palsy. She is a passionate advocate for the Y Knot Abilities Program, which includes her swim team. The program offers recreational sports opportunities for kids with physical disabilities and their able-bodied siblings.
“I think sports, especially for persons with disabilities – team sports, individual sports, whatever – are so beneficial on so many levels,” Lambert said after the ceremony.
Her coach, marathon swimmer Vicki Keith, was her main inspiration when she decided she wanted to swim across Lake Ontario, she said. Keith was swimming to raise money for the new pool and Lambert asked to be trained so she could help fundraise too.
“I wanted to give my teammates the same joy and experience that I had found in the water by building the pool,” Lambert said.
She said that when she started telling people that she wanted to attempt the swim, the entire Kingston community was supportive, especially her friends and family.
“They were always like ‘You can do this. Of course you can.’”
The swim was intended to take 24 hours to complete, but adverse weather conditions dragged it out to 32 hours. Despite this, Lambert was determined to persevere.
Marathon swimming doesn’t allow the swimmers to touch anything – not the kayak that accompanies them or any land they might pass, Lambert explained.
“I came up to Simcoe Island, and I had been swimming for what was now about 28 hours, so I was supposed to be finished the marathon,” she recalled. “I was tired and I didn’t know if I could keep going and my coach, she looked at me and she said something very smart on her part:
“She said, ‘You know, Jenna, you could just go over there and touch Simcoe Island.’ And to me, that meant ‘You could just go over there and quit.’ And I thought to myself, I’m not a quitter, I need to do this. I need to do this for my teammates. They’re counting on me.”
Although she’s focused on her academics right now, Lambert plans to continue working with the Y Knot Abilities Program. She said it was an honour to receive the award on Friday.
“I’m among such incredible recipients, so it’s been just a remarkable experience,” she said.
And as for whether she would ever attempt another marathon swim?
“I never say never.”