Saltwater, Swells & Jellyfish: Sheilagh O’Leary on the Thrill of the Tickle Swim For Mental Health

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On Saturday August 19th, about 20 people will set out to complete the annual 5km open-water “Tickle Swim For Mental Health.” For the fifth year in a row, swimmers have pledged to swim from Bell Island to Portugal Cove to raise money for the Canadian Mental Health Association – Newfoundland and Labrador (CMHA – NL).

Community activist and St. John’s city councillor Sheilagh O’Leary came up with the idea for the fundraiser five years ago. We talked to her about the inspiration for the swim, braving the icy waters, and what it felt like to arrive on the other side.

“It started with a bucket list item. I’ve always been involved in swimming and loved open water swimming … and I always had this idea in the back of my head that I would love to swim a channel,” O’Leary said.

O’Leary is a passionate advocate for better-funded programming for people struggling with mental health issues in our province. She saw the swim as an opportunity to tick something off her bucket list while also raising money for CMHA –NL.

“I thought this is a personal challenge for me that kind of parallels the personal challenges that people have with mental health and mental illness,” O’Leary said. “I also thought it was a great empowerment piece and an interesting way to draw attention to how physical health and mental health can sometimes be interlocked.”

O’Leary partnered with CHMA-NL and put out a public call for swimmers to join her as she crossed the channel. That first year seven people did the swim, many of whom were strong swimmers but didn’t have much experience with open water swimming.

“We were a small group, including people like Lynn Moore and Jody Richardson who had also never done anything like this before, we were shaking in our pants,” O’Leary said. “We had to learn everything from the ground up, from the safety issues to having support there for the swimmers.”

Despite weeks of training and the extensive safety precautions were put in place, O’Leary was terrified when she arrived at the beach on the day of the swim.

“I had done a lot of training in the pool leading up to the swim so I knew I could do the distance, but swimming in a pool is completely different from swimming in the cold North Atlantic Ocean with tides and swells, saltwater and jellyfish, and all the rest,” O’Leary said.

About halfway through the swim O’Leary found her stride and became overwhelmed by the beauty of seeing Bell Island from new a perspective.

“When I first started the water was freezing cold, it took me about a half hour to catch my breath. When I finally acclimatized I was halfway between Bell Island and Portugal Cove with this gorgeous blue sky above me.”

By the time she arrived on shore, O’Leary was exhausted and overjoyed. 

“When I got to the other side I felt like a goddess,” O’Leary laughed. “It was such a high to complete that challenge. I knew I had really pushed the parameters of what I could physically do.”

Over the past five years the “Tickle Swim For Mental Health” has become more and more popular. Last year the swim surpassed its goal and raised over $30,000 for CHMA-NL. Donations are still being accepted for this year’s swim and people are invited to come down to the beach to cheer the swimmers on.

For more information, or to make a donation in honour of a swimmer visit www.tickleswim.com.

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Eva Crocker

Eva Crocker is a writer from St. John's, her short story collection, Barrelling Forward, was published by House of Anansi Press in Spring of 2017.

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