Swimming Buddies: Virginia Ridpath and Richie Castillo
A former Olympic swimmer and her Philippines-born caregiver swam together for less than a year – but the experience changed both their lives profoundly.
Virginia Ridpath and Richie Castillo swam regularly together for less than a year – but the experience changed both their lives profoundly.
Many people who knew Virginia, or Ginny, recall her love of food. For a time she was the proprietor of Oasis Fine Foods – the first eatery with a truly urban flair in Orangeville.
But Oasis wasn’t Virginia’s only first, and managing a business wasn’t her sole skill – not by a long shot. In addition to being an accomplished painter, seasoned paddler and skydiving for the first time at age 75, she was a swimmer of such note that when she arrived at Orangeville’s Alder Street pool, anyone using the lane closest to the window would make way so she had “her” lane to herself.
Born into Toronto’s storied Gooderham family, Virginia had a privileged childhood, growing up in the leafy affluence of Forest Hill. She began competitive swimming when she was 10, her exceptional talent nurtured by some the country’s best coaches.
Virginia first staked her claim as an international competitor with podium finishes at the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games and the 1955 Pan American Games. She went on to represent Canada at the 1956 Summer Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia. There she became part of Canada’s Olympic swimming history. After heat times that broke the old Olympic record, she secured fifth place finishes in both the 100-metre freestyle and 4×100-metre freestyle relay. Her showing earned the tall and slender 19-year-old two Olympic points, Canada’s first-ever individual female swimmer to receive them.
Her daughter Larkin Ridpath recalls her mother placing fourth and sixth in the 50-metre and 100-metre freestyle respectively at an international masters swim meet in 2014 when Virginia was 77. “We were very proud of her,” says Larkin. But Virginia was disappointed with her result. “Well you are fourth in the world,” Larkin recalls telling her. “That’s not too bad.”
As the years caught up with Virginia, she developed ALS and dementia. And with the brutal double assault on her health, her lifelong passion for swimming seemed to decline.
But then she met Richie Castillo. Virginia’s family had hired Richie to help care for her. Richie had grown up in the Philippines where her parents, she says, were “very poor.” But her father, a taxi driver, vowed his five children would be educated to avoid the same fate. And all of them were. Richie trained as a midwife, and first took a job as domestic worker in Hong Kong. Although she liked the family, “there was no freedom; there were no days off.” Friends who had immigrated to Canada told her conditions were better here.
Richie arrived in Canada in 2004, sponsored by an Orangeville family. And it wasn’t long before she and the wife conceived a business plan to start an agency, bringing over other young women from the Philippines as nannies and caregivers. Until 2012 when Canada changed its entry rules, they settled about 320 women across the country, many of them in the Orangeville area.
Although Richie had grown up surrounded by water, she had never learned to swim. So when she came to care for Virginia, she couldn’t do much to encourage her into the water, and could only wait at the pool’s edge when she did venture in. Then a remarkable thing happened, Richie recalls. “One day Ginny said, ‘Maybe you’ll swim with me.’”
It took Richie, in her mid 40s at the time, two months of lessons to overcome her fear and learn the breaststroke. “I only learned one stroke and I keep my head in the air,” she says.
At first Richie avoided the deep end, but with time and some coaching from Virginia, she not only overcame her fear, but improved her fitness and lost weight.
As Virginia’s health declined, she and Richie continued to encourage each other, and the bond of respect and affection deepened between the two women, one older, one younger, who had grown up a world apart in very different circumstances.
“I’d put on my bathing suit and say, ‘Let’s go,’” says Richie, “and eventually she would. Then once she began to swim, she didn’t want to stop.” With Richie in the water with her, Virginia would swim lengths doing the front crawl for a full hour. “When she was in the water, she was really happy,” Richie says.
Afterward, Virginia would hug Richie. Though her speech was failing, her gratitude was not. “Thank you for looking after me,” she would say.
As for Richie, “It made me proud to swim with an Olympian. Without Ginny, I wouldn’t have had the courage to learn how.” And without Richie, Virginia would not have been able to escape her illness and continue to enjoy her great pleasure.
Until a few weeks before Virginia’s death last October, Richie took her to the Alder Street pool to swim for an hour three times a week.
“I miss her,” says Richie. “She was a very strong woman – a very kind woman.”
And Virginia’s legacy to Richie? On a recent visit to the Philippines, Richie stayed in a family home close to the sea. “I went to the ocean every day to swim,” she says with obvious pride.