Debbie started swimming at the age of five at the YMCA pool in New Westminster, British Columbia. She started swimming competitively at the age of 13 for the Mississauga Aquatic Club (TOMAC). The following year she started with the Alderwood Swim Club, coached by Tony Keeler. She also swam for Applewood Heights Secondary School, coached by her father.
"I guess she comes by her aquatic love honestly." Says her father Ted. There are more than 30 medals in Debbie's family. Her mother, Thelma, her father, Ted Sr., her sisters, Jo-Anne and Michele, and brother Ted Jr. all hold swimming certificates. Grandfather Pat Roach rowed and coached the first man, John Jaremy, across Lake Ontario. Second cousin Winnie Roach was the first Canadian to swim across the English Channel and also attempted to cross Lake Ontario with Marilyn Bell.
Debbie's first marathon swim was on August 4, 1974 when she became the first person to swim from Washago to Orillia on Lake Couchiching. With her father coaching and brother pacing her, the 12 mile marathon took 6 hours and 41 minutes. They raised $300 for the Orillia branch of the Canadian Cancer Society.
Debbie's second marathon swim was across Lake Ontario from Niagara-on-the-Lake to Ontario Place, Toronto on August 16, 1975 in 18:41. Water temperatures ranged from 19 to 22 degrees C. Debbie remembers a difficult part of the swim, about 10 miles from the Toronto shore line, when her father looked down at her with tears in his eyes and asked "Do you want to get out Debbie?" Debbie replied "No Dad, we're going all the way!"
Debbie surprised the waiting crowds of well-wishers by not touching shore at the first land available, but instead she swam through the Ontario Place marine channel to reach shore only yards from the main gate of the Canadian National Exhibition.
Debbie had a wager with her father that called for him to quit his two-pack-a-day cigarette habit if she successfully crossed the lake. When Debbie got out of the water, the first thing she did was reach for her Dad's cigarettes and crumple them. They turned out to be Ted Sr.'s last pack of cigarettes and he still thanks Debbie for saving his life from smoking.
The swim was followed by a triumphant tour of the Ontario Place waterways in a rubber pace boat to the delight of the estimated 10,000 Canadian National Exhibition and Ontario Place visitors who watched her come ashore. Debbie said she was not interested in setting any records; she only wanted to make it across the lake. Debbie gave all proceeds from the swim to the Alderwood Swim Club to help further the opportunities of young swimmers.
A year after her solo swim across Lake Ontario, Debbie's family became the first family to swim a relay across the lake.