Jade Scognamillo: Our Lady of the Lakes

Local Hero: Jade’s powerhouse Lake Erie swim went in the record books!

November 15, 2009 | | Back Issues | Community | Local Heroes | Winter 2009

Jade Scognamillo: One of our 2009 Local Heroes

You need to be careful when you meet 15- year-old marathon swimming marvel and champion fundraiser Jade Scognamillo. You might want to adopt her.

It’s not that this conqueror of both Lake Erie and Lake Ontario needs saving. It’s that her sense of community, commitment, courage and poise raise the bar on “inspiring.” If anyone has ever picked a dream and then utterly dedicated themselves to achieving it, it’s Jade.

Her passions for both swimming and charity began when she was still a youngster in Kent, England. Her mom, Jane, nearly drowned as a child, and vowed her own children would swim, so Jade started lessons at age five. Perhaps more remarkable, she was just eight when her habit of raising funds for charity took hold: “My mom and dad were having a big anniversary party,” she says. “My aunt was ill with cancer, and I wanted to help, so I held a raffle at the party and raised a hundred pounds.” At age nine, she began competitive swimming.

In 2004, the family travelled to Ontario on an exploratory visit, considering emigration. Jade says, “One of the big reasons I was ‘for’ moving to Canada was because I learned about the people who swam Lake Ontario.” The family did move here in 2005, settling on eighteen acres in northeast Caledon. Jade enrolled at Country Day School and began training with the Vaughan Aquatic Club, based in Aurora, under the direction of coach Nancy Black.

The next step must have been nerve-wracking for her family. Imagine your 13-year-old seriously declaring that she plans to swim Lake Ontario, soon. And as a warm-up, she’ll first swim Lake Erie. Oh, and by the way, the whole thing will be a huge charity fundraiser for Sick Children’s Hospital in Toronto, which needs infant incubators.

Mom Jane, dad Tony, younger brothers Paul and Connor must have set their worries aside though, because in July 2008, at age 14, Jade became not only the youngest, but, at five hours and forty minutes, also the fastest swimmer to cross Lake Erie. More stunning, she beat the old record by more than two hours, afterward claiming she did it “with energy to spare.”

That energy would be needed if Jade was to at tempt the traditional route across Lake Ontario, established in 1954 by Marilyn Bell. At fifty-two kilometres, the crossing from Niagara on- the-Lake to Toronto is more than thirty kilometres longer than the Erie route.

As a landed immigrant, Jade’s powerhouse Lake Erie swim went in the record books under Britain – her only disappointment from the experience. Weeks before the Lake Ontario swim, however, the situation was rectified when Jade received a unique grant of Canadian citizenship in a ceremony presided over by local MP David Tilson.

On July 24 this year, after thousands of hours of training, after all the anticipation, the big day had arrived. But with supporters gathered at the water’s edge, boats at the ready, Jade underwent a further test of her mettle when the swim had to be called off at the last minute due to thunderstorm warnings. Rescheduled for July 31, the swim was again delayed by bad weather, though this time only by a few hours. Finally, at 9:33 p.m., in the dark, Jade stepped into the water.

A few windy, wavy hours in, experiencing illness and facing a long night ahead, Jade had her first doubts. What helped keep her going? “My coach had this great idea,” she says. “Before the swim she gave me cue cards and got me to write things on them that inspired me or that I liked. Random things – Sick Kids, the money I’m raising, even chocolate. Then she stuck them to the side of the kayak where I could see them. I also had the names of all the people who had doubted me – you remember them, you know.” The technique didn’t stop there – she even had Sick Kids logos painted on her fingernails.

Battling on through the night, did she ever want to quit? “Well,” she says, a certain wisdom in her tone, “wanting to get out and doing it are very different things. I kept telling my coach that during the swim. I was having dull pains – more annoying than anything else. She kept asking if I wanted to get out and I’d say, ‘No. I just want to tell someone!’”

Eventually the long night ended, the task at hand brighter if no less punishing. “Lake Erie was warmer and not as wavy,” she says. “Most of Lake Ontario was about sixty degrees, though in some places it went down into the fifties.”

As Toronto slowly grew on the horizon, Jade’s grit and determination competed with her exhaustion and pain. In the last kilometre, after so many hours in the water, one more gruelling challenge awaited: “The waves grew to five or six feet in the last part,” she says. Nevertheless, when she finally touched the wall at Marilyn Bell Park, a crowd cheering her on, she had become the youngest person ever to swim Lake Ontario. “Everyone thought I didn’t look very happy to be finished,” she recalls, “but actually my face was frozen and I couldn’t show any emotion.”

Donate to Jade Swim4Life here. (Donations over $20 are eligible for a tax receipt.)

Although the record for the fastest crossing of Lake Ontario is a little over fifteen hours, Jade’s goal had been to complete the swim in under twenty. In order to avoid strong currents at the mouth of the Humber River, she ended up swimming sixty kilometres instead of fifty-two – “It felt like I was swimming to Hamilton before going to Toronto” – but despite that she made it in nineteen hours, fifty-nine minutes and forty-nine seconds, that is, with eleven seconds to spare.

Jade has exceeded her original target of raising $35,000 for Sick Kids, and is now aiming at $70,000. So far she has brought in a little over $50,000, but donations will be accepted until the end of the year.

You might expect Jade to be relaxing these days, her goal achieved, but taking it easy doesn’t seem to be in her. She continues to train seven times a week, spending about twelve hours in the water and several more hours on what she calls “land training.” On one hand, she’s pondering university – “I’m into sciences and math” – but on the other, she’s sizing up the Olympics.

There’s little doubt we’ll hear more from charming Jade Scognamillo, but will she swim another lake? “Not necessarily,” she says, and there’s something telling in her explanation: “A lot of athletes are pushed by their parents, but this came from me. There’s no way you can do it without being one hundred per cent committed. A lot of it is physical, but most of it is mental.

Without that, I wouldn’t be able to get across.” Without a hint of been-there-done-that, she says, “I came out of the lake a different person.”

About the Author More by Jeff Rollings

Jeff Rollings is a freelance writer living in Caledon.

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