2023 Tickle Swim Bell Island Tickle, Portugal Cove

As I swam up onto the beach of Bell Island.  I had made it.  Legs wobbly.  Tongue, raw and numb.  Back, legs, and shoulders exhausted.  All I could think was, I could kiss the beach!

I’d just overcome the most challenging physical and mental experience since 2019: The Tickle Swim. 

If you are not familiar with Newfoundland dictionary definitions.  This is Newfoundland’s (NL) own book of cultural words.  Let me be the one to introduce you just one of many; Tickle.  In regular english, the word tickle is defined as; to give a light touch that causes someone tingling, itching or to make them laugh. That is not what it means in NL.  To Newfoundlanders, Tickle means; a “narrow difficult strait, between two islands or land masses”  

But don’t worry if you didn’t know what it meant.  I did not know what the NL definition of tickle was either.  Yet in the summer of 2020.  After just recently moving with my family too Newfoundland.  The topic of the Tickle Swim got brought up by my son, Kiya.  He goes “hey Mom you should do this 5km swim”.  As a previous competitive swimmer through my pre teen, and teenage years.  My ears perked up when my son said this to me.  I was like, “Oh, what is this swim?”  Kiya goes, “it’s a swim across the Atlantic Ocean for fundraising.”  All I heard him say was Atlantic Ocean, and I tuned the rest out.  I responded, “ARE YOU NUTS! That ocean is COLD!”  You see.  I much prefer warm, hot weather temperatures.  I moved to NL for my family, not the weather. 

Every year since moving, someone, somewhere, in conversation had brought up the Tickle Swim to me.  Then in January 2023 at a mutual friends party, I met a new friend. He also, “just” happened to have done the support role of a Kayaker, in the 2022 tickle swim.  I was like JEEZ!  Alright.  I get it!  Someone or something is trying to tell me, that I NEED TO SWIM THIS SWIM!

 I looked up the website for the swim.   To get the exact definition of what I was getting into.  “The Tickle Swim is a 5 km Open Ocean Swim from Portugal Cove to Bell Island Newfoundland. All swimmers are welcome provided they are fit enough to complete the distance. The aim of the swim is to raise awareness and reduce stigma around mental illness, and to remind us that physical and mental health go hand-in-hand.  It is a unique and challenging Newfoundland event, for a great cause!”

I thought to myself I can do this.  Mental health is important to me, both, personally, and professionally.  Personally, when I was young, I had major issues with depression, and suicidal ideation.  Physical fitness, especially boxing, really gave me a way out of it.  Even more so, during COVID.  Like so many others, I struggled with my mental health.  The fear mongering, and isolation really got to my mental health.  Then professionally, during my four years of nursing as an RN. I worked in a Long Term Care Dementia, and Geriatric mental health out of Toronto CAMH.  Now as a business owner.  I specialize in working with Parkinson’s with a boxing program called, Rock Steady Boxing Undisputed, and animal therapy with Goat Walks on the Rock.  In different ways, fundraising for this swim means a lot.   

June 2023 comes.  I signed up online for the tickle swim.  Came up with a plan for training.  That friend I met at the beginning of the new year, Peter, signed up to be my kayak support person.  We began training together two times a week.  Both, in the ponds (aka as lakes) and in shelter coves of salt water ocean.  When he couldn’t train with me, my family and friends stepped in to help me out.  

2023 Tickle Swim Keyin College, St. John’s

The week of the tickle swim arrived.  Everyone who had registered got together for a safety meeting.  This was really great.  You see, I have an extensive background of competitive and adventure events, outside of the competitive swimming.  I had 45 amateur boxing matches. I won the first Canadian Golden Gloves light welterweight tittle in 2013.  Then with two professional boxing fights. One of them featured as the co main event on the first all female North American boxing show, in Gatineau Quebec in 2014.  In addition to this, I have done 5 Tough Mudder Events (with amazing teammates) which included one event, overseas in Scotland in June 2018.  For those of you that do not know what Tough Mudder is.  It is 25 obstacles event the distance of a half marathon, through mud, swamp, and steep hills.  While also crawling, climbing, pulling, pushing, jumping, and running all the 25 obstacles.  It is to simulate the training that military personal go through.  With the opportunity to raise funds for wounded warriors in the military.  

Even with all these experiences. I was really nervous about tackling a challenge where the elements of nature are so unpredictable.  This safety meeting was really important for my mental preparation.  

During the meeting the organizer let us know exactly what to expect the day of the event from beginning to end.  The emphases was especially on the safety component of the swim.  Which was comforting.  I had questions.  Which the previous tickle swimmers answered.  Like, what if you get stung by a jelly fish?  They said it does not feel so bad.  Yet bring vinegar to help the sting, if you get stung.  The previous swimmers gave me a sense of confidence and calm in doing the swim.  If they had survived, unscathed by the elements of the Atlantic ocean. So could I! 

The day of the tickle swim arrived, August 26th, 2023.  5am the emails went out to say if the weather was in good condition for the swim to happen.  No wind.  Calm ocean.  Plus, the air temperature was warm. Perfect weather conditions.  YIPPIE!  My support Kayaker, Peter, and I drive into Portugal Cove. Packed with all our essentially tickle swim gear. 

MY NERVES! EW.  If you know nothing about being nervous for something.  It can be, well, nerve wracking.  You get shaky.  Your breathing gets shallow.  Your stomach and digestive system begins to act up.  Thinking can become a challenge.  Essentially your body is preparing for fight or flight.  However, I have A LOT of experience in dealing with my nerves, and coaching others through nerves.  The best thing is to focus on breathing.  I have found the best breathing technique is box breathing.  A tip I picked up through much reading.  It is a technique Navy Seals use when in action. Breath in for 4.  Hold for 4.  Breath out for 4.  No breath for 4. Check out this video for a full demonstration.    

In good time, we arrived in Portugal cove.  Unloaded the kayaks onto the beach.  Geared up the kayak with all the needed supplies for the swim.  I put my wet suit and swim cap on.  We listened to the opening speech thanking the sponsors. 

2023 Tickle Swim Bell Island Tickle, Portugal Cove

Then we all gathered onto the beach.  Launched the kayakers into the ocean.  Then all posed for a photo opt. 

2023 Tickle Swim Bell Island Tickle, Portugal Cove

I was in the first set of two groups of swimmers to swim out to meet their kayakers.  We were off.  I remember thinking in my head, LETS DO THIS.  I AM EXCITED.  BRING IT ON.  

2023 Tickle Swim Bell Island Tickle, Portugal Cove

I quickly caught up to Peter.  He kept to my right side.  I began with freestyle stroke (aka front crawl).

2023 Tickle Swim Bell Island Tickle, Portugal Cove

The first 20mins of the swim, it took a bit to get into the rhythm.  I alternated between freestyle and back stroke.  I really got into a rhythm, when I began counting my strokes.  It gave me a sense of focus.  Every 50 freestyle strokes I would roll over onto my back and do 50 backstrokes.  

2023 Tickle Swim Bell Island Tickle, Portugal Cove

As I looked back to Portugal Cove Beach where we had launched.  The sun and clouds came over the peaks and valleys of the hills.  Then A RAINBOW appeared.  I called out to Peter, did you see the rainbow?  WOW!  That was a view.  

2023 Tickle Swim Bell Island Tickle, Portugal Cove

I felt strong, consistent, and in the zone.  Yippie!  I felt like this for over half the distance of the swim.  I stopped a couple times for water.  Then during one back stroke, my hand hit what felt like a big patch of seaweed.  I yelped from the unexpected feeling.  Then I felt the sting hit me.  OH shit! That wasn’t seaweed. It was a jelly fish.  My wrist really began to burn.  I was like Peter, PETER!  I need that vinegar.  I swam up to the side of the kayak.  He twisted the squirt bottle open and after a few unsuccessful squirts, got the squirt of vinegar going.  Which relieved the burning sensation that had began.  Phew.  Thank god for that tip! 

I took a little rest.  Then I began swimming again.  It was harder now to get back into a rhythm, but I did.  But then my calves, hamstrings, and back started cramping.  This was just about at over the 3km point to Bell Island.  Ugh!  I stopped again.  Stretching, while hanging off the bow of the kayak.  I felt slightly better.  Started swimming again.  With the sensation of cramping, on and off.  As a coach, and fitness trainer.  I really should have known better.  I easily could have prevented this, BY BRINGING GATORADE to drink!  Yet silly me.  I thought water would be enough.  My thought process before the event was that being immersed in a salt water ocean, was enough to cover my need for electrolytes.  Silly rookie mistake.  However, I kept going. One stroke at a time.  Then my vision began getting spotty.  Eek! I know what this means.  My electrolytes are completely off.  I stopped, had water, and stretched again.  Then kept swimming.  Then it began to get a little wavier.  This is where the part of my body, wanted to take over my mind.  I was tired.  My electrolytes where impinging my vision.  And I was starting to feel panic setting in.  My mind began running away with me.  “You are out in a wide vast ocean with at least another 20-30mins left to swim.  There are jelly fish and god knows whatever else swimming below you.  You keep swallowing sea water.”  I could feel my breath starting to constrict, and tears well up.  I went back to the bow of the kayak, held on and as the tears further started to fill up my swim goggles. In my head I began my rehearsed mantra of “I am calm, cool, and collected.  I am one with nature.”  Then proceeded to focus on my box breathing technique for about 2mins.  Finally I was calm and ready to finish what I had started.  

I began swimming again with consistent determination.  Stroke after stroke of freestyle I was getting to the beach.  I could see the green shirts of support volunteers and families. 

I was about at the 1km way mark to the beach.  Then the waves really started in.  Sigh.  Ok.  I can do this.  I switched to breast stroke so I could breath easier without swallowing salt water.

2023 Tickle Swim Bell Island Tickle, Portugal Cove

This went on for what felt like FOREVER! Fortunately the current was not as strong as it could have been.  We had been advised during the safety meeting about 1km away from the beach there is a section called, the Treadmill.  Which is a current that can pull you towards the part of the island where the ferry is.  If the winds change, this current can be strong without noticing.  Thankful it was not. 

Then at about the 5min away mark from the finish line of the Bell Island beach.  I switched back to freestyle, and FINALLY, with Peter encouraging me right by side.  I swam, (which felt more like) washed up onto the beach.  

As I kneeled in the water, one of the volunteers asked if I needed help.  I said no I’m ok, but I definitely feel like kissing land! I crawled up onto the beach and collapsed in exhausted pride.  I DID IT!  

2023 Tickle Swim Bell Island Tickle, Portugal Cove

The camera man, Dave.  Was right there taking pictures.  He was like look up and smile.  I was like, I can’t.  I can’t feel my tongue.  Him and Peter laughed.  I was like no. I’m serious, I can’t feel my tongue, and I stuck my tongue out at them.  They laughed even more.  I guess all the salt made my tongue raw and numb.  

2023 Tickle Swim Bell Island Tickle, Portugal Cove

I got gatorade into me.  Dried off, the best as I could.  We got some more pictures.  Made sure the kayak was secure from the ocean.  And cheered on the remaining swimmers making their way onto the beach.  Wow though.  As I was standing agin.  My legs felt like a baby giraffe who’d just been born and was learning how to walk.  Swimming in all those waves, really did a number on the equilibrium.  It took a bit for that feeling to wear off.

Finally everyone made it safely onto the beach.  We cheered! YAY.  We did it.  For a drone photo, Dave positioned all the kayaks and swimmers lying down on the beach.  

2023 Tickle Swim Bell Island Tickle, Portugal Cove

We then all walked up onto the main land of Bell Island across from the Ferry, to Dicks Fish and Chips.  Where we mingled, chatted, and congratulated one another on a major accomplishment.  The greatest feeling at the end for me.  Was that at 1020am was my celebration drink.  My favourite beer, Guinness.  As I drank it, knowing I had earned every damn GULP of that beer, it was PURE JOY!

At 1045 am we loaded Peter’s Kayak with all our stuff onto the Ferry.  Made our way back to Portugal Cove to get on with the rest of our planned day.  My Mom’s 80th birthday party was happening.  Peter was playing with his band, Hammer Shack, at the local festival.  We got on that Ferry, feeling seriously accomplished and happy. 

Proving to each other, that TEAM WORK MAKES THE DREAM WORK! 

2023 Tickle Swim Bell Island Tickle, Portugal Cove

Even if you are struggling with mental health.  It takes support and help to get out of it.  Then ongoing strategies to maintain your mental health.  

Exercise.  Nutrition.  Meditation.  Counselling.  Positive support groups, just like demonstrated with the Tickle Swim.  Are all strategies that help you cope.  Then when you are in crisis or just don’t know whats going on with your mental health.  Make sure to reach out to organizations like Canadian Mental Health, Newfoundland for professional services. 

I know thats why I did the tickle swim.  Because mental health, is health.  

Looking for an exercise program in Newfoundland.  Come try out my boxing seminar on Saturday September 9th, 2023 from 12-3pm.  The seminar includes physical and animal therapy for both, physical and mental health.  You can view full details here.

The Donation link for the tickle swim is still up for another two weeks.  If it resonates with you, please consider donating to help the Canadian Mental Health Association, Newfoundland.  So they can reach its goal of $50,000.  So far we have raised over $42,000. Not bad for 11 swimmers, eh?!

Tickle Swim photo credits go to Dave Hiscock.

Thank you Dave for such incredible pictures fully capturing how the tickle swim felt.

Many thanks to my clients, friends, and family for donating and supporting me.

A HUGE THANK YOU to my support Kayaker, Peter, for being by my side, every stroke of the way.  I could not have done the tickle swim without you.

And if you are reading this.

Thank you so much for reading!

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Coach Lita.


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