Trudy Wilson works and lives 10 km north of Peterborough, Ont. in Bridgenorth (pop. 2,200), which is situated on Chemong Lake, part of the cottage-country Kawartha Lakes District. When the Re/Max Eastern Realty broker decided to create a charity event to raise money for SickKids Hospital in memory of her late daughter, you just knew she’d take to the water.
And she did. But not in a boat.
Last year the 46-year-old mother of five swam the entire 386-km Trent-Severn Waterway, completing it via dozens of nine- to 12-hour laps, from July to September.
Born and raised in the Toronto suburb of Agincourt, Wilson moved with her husband, Harvey, and their children to Bridgenorth in 2008 in search of a quieter lifestyle. Ten years previous, the couple’s daughter, Lauren Taylor Wilson, died two days after she was born due to birth injuries. The Wilsons’ remaining children range in age from four to 17.
Ever since her daughter’s death, Trudy Wilson had wanted to create a pledge in Lauren’s memory. By 2016, the 13-year real estate industry professional had decided to swim the Trent-Severn Waterway and raise funds to support high-priority needs at SickKids Hospital in medical research, education and patient care through the Possibilities Fund.
Although she was a competitive swimmer in high school, Wilson was now a recreational swimmer who’d be facing the biggest challenge of her life. She had done some endurance training with a personal trainer and swam in a pool, but she admits she underestimated how challenging the swim through the various rivers, lakes and canals would be.
“If I had planned the minutiae of the entire trip, I probably would not have started,” she says. “And I could not have done it without the incredible support of my family and colleagues.”
The voyage was anything but smooth sailing.
After securing permission from Parks Canada, including a stipulation to canoe through the lift lock system, Wilson wanted to start her swim on June 20. Sadly, her mother, Betty, died on June 17. When asked if she thought of cancelling the project, Wilson said her mother would not want to be the cause of that. With encouragement from family members, Wilson began her swim at Port Severn on Georgian Bay on June 20, the day after her mother’s funeral.
However, the loss of her mother took a mental toll. On the first day of swimming against the current, and wearing an uncomfortable neoprene suit, she completed only four km as tears welled up in her goggles. “I can’t do it,” she cried to her supporters, as she panicked and struggled to breathe. “I’ve made a big mistake.”
“Yes you can do it!” encouraged Elizabeth Stokes Weber, of Re/Max Hallmark Realty in Port Carling, who was following in a kayak. “You will do it even if you have to doggy paddle all the way.” Wilson later credited Weber for being “a tough coach.”
When she realized she could not swim through the emotional grief and the physical pain (she hurt an ankle at the funeral) Wilson decided to take some time off “to heal.”
By July 19, Wilson was determined to start the swim and complete it. She credits a number of people for giving her renewed confidence and determination to tackle it again. One was Bruce Johnson, a salesperson with Re/Max of Wasaga Beach, who had travelled 9,400 km on a motorcycle across Canada with his daughter, Holly, in a 2016 initiative called Motorcycles for Miracles. Johnson and his wife, Mary, also lost a daughter, Alyssa, who lived only 20 days after birth. “Bruce was instrumental in my re-start,” Wilson says. “He breathed life into my plans for a miracle swim.”
The venture began in earnest once again and Wilson’s mantra became “Suck it up, buttercup.”
She had a lot to suck up. Besides enduring cold water and high waves on some lakes and rivers, the intrepid swimmer fought other elements, such as water soldiers (spear-shaped, saw-edged water plants that rise to the surface to flower), and large concentrations of algae bloom that can sometimes be toxic.
“I just made up my mind to swim through the slime,” says Wilson. Following her daily swim of seven to nine hours, in which she’d put 10 to 14 km behind her, she would emerge from the water with scrapes and bruises, often suffering even more cuts on her feet as she climbed the rocky shores over a sea of tiny zebra mussels. It’s as though she were invoking Winston Churchill’s sage advice, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
Wilson, who is a member of a dozen associations and civic organizations, from Women’s Business Network of Peterborough to Children’s Miracle Network, stayed in a variety of places following her voyage through the Trent-Severn navigational channels. Sometimes she took a few days off to rest at a colleague’s home or cottage or her own home in Bridgenorth and once in a hotel. She avoided swimming on weekends when the waterways were busiest.
Many business competitors helped out in many ways, from providing water taxis to serving as “water chaperones.” She describes Bill Wolff, her colleague at Re/Max in Bridgenorth as “awesome and a great encourager” who often followed her in his big boat. She said Wolff took care of her existing clients, asking nothing in return. One day he was accompanying her in his boat and talking on his phone with one of Wilson’s clients as he discussed “a challenging deal,” and consulted with Wilson in the water.
Pat Mahoney of Re/Max Peterborough Eastern Realty, who donated a kidney to a stranger last year, bought a kayak so he could “help out.”
On Sept. 18, Wilson climbed out of the waters of Lake Ontario at Trenton. “It was a perfect day,” she says. “About 80 supporters were there to greet me.”
She has raised about $33,000 for SickKids Hospital.
While Wilson is grateful for the support of many people who helped her create a legacy for her late daughter, she was also buoyed by inspiring people in all walks of life. Long after the swim, when Wilson realized she is far tougher than she thought, she “got chills” when she heard the words of Eleanor Roosevelt who said, “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”