top of page

Paula Stephanson
*ALL Five Great Lakes 1996-2009

Paula Stephanson swam across Lake Ontario in 1996 at the age of 17 in 22 hours 30 minutes. Subsequently, she has swum Lake Erie (1998, 18:23, aged 19), Lake Huron (2000, 22:26, aged 21) , Lake Superior (2007, 13:15, aged 28), and Lake Michigan (2009, 25:38, aged 30). This accomplishment makes Paula the second person ever to achieve this feat, after Vicki Keith's amazing 5-lakes crossing in a single season in 1988. No man has met this challenge! This is REAL SWIMMING in a regulation swim-suit, cap and goggles - no wet suits or other artificial aids to endurance.

Paula started competitive swimming when she was 10 years old, joining the Belleville Youth Swim Team, where she is still an active member. She specialized early in the backstroke and freestyle, but it was after a breaststroke race that her competitive spirit was exemplified: she cried when she was given a DQ! By the age of 13, Paula had received her Bronze Medallion and, at 14, her Bronze Cross.

When she was 14 during a holiday with her family in Switzerland, she was introduced to her first taste of competitive long-distance swimming. She entered a well-known 1.8 kilometre swim, known as the Lemmett River Swim Race, involving hundreds of swimmers of any age or gender, participating on a time trial basis. Paula was first overall, completing the course in under 18 minutes, and now proudly displays the trophy.

Lake Erie swim on 18-19 July 1998 was a great success, as she covered the 43 km (27 mile) course from Dunkirk (New York) to Rock Point provincial park (Ontario) in 14 hours 23 minutes. The successful swim, however, started on the morning after an aborted swim where she struggled for 3 hours in rough water, on the night of July 17.

Lake Huron in 2000 followed the same 55 km (34.5 mile) course as John Bulsza from Port Sanilac (Michigan) to Port Franks (Ontario); however, her time of 22 hours 26 minutes was 4 hours 23 minutes faster than 46-year-old John. The photographic gallery below illustrates the joyful finish of Paula's swim on the beach at Port Franks on Sunday 13th August. She was greeted by some 20 family members and numerous amazed onlookers as she ran ashore through the shallow water of the last 50 m.

Lake Superior, 2007. After her Lake Huron swim, Paula took time-out to focus on her education and training to become a teacher; consequently, her goal to complete all five Great Lakes was put on hold until 2007 when she took on Lake Superior over a similar course to that taken by Vicki Keith. Paula's course took her from Quarry Point at Port Wing (Wisconsin) to the beach at the foot of the break-wall at Two Harbors (Minnesota).

Her swim started at 6:23 am and took 13 hours 15 minutes. The water temperature started at 16 degrees, hit a low of 13.3 C after two hours of swimming, the slowly rose to 15 C. The air was 11.7 degrees C at the start. It was calm water at the start but the waves increased slowly in size to 1 metre. With white caps on the waves coming directly from the east, feeding became more difficult over the next three hours as the waves increased in height to 1.5 metres, with some approaching 2 m. Paula says that this was probably the toughest of her Great Lakes swims, as she felt so cold with the low water temperatures and an air temperature that did not go above 15 degrees C. Paula felt she was on time to complete the swim in 10 hours, before the swells came. 

The photos  are courtesy of Ross Cassan, Spirent Communications.

Lake Michigan, 2009. Similar to her Lake Erie swim, Paula's Lake Michigan required a restart after the weather failed to improve. The Chicago Beaches Authority would not allow Paula to start the swim from the public beach known as Rainbow Beach, so the first attempt (August 21st) was started from a beach owned by a condominium corporation immediately north and adjacent to the public beach. In this first attempt, she started at 1:33 pm and swam for approximately 18.6 km before the Swim Master, Bob Weir, determined that the conditions were not improving due to heavy rains and a strong northerly wind and the swim was called off after 7 hours 15 minutes. 

The successful Lake Michigan crossing started at 6:24 pm on Sunday 23rd August 2009 from the spit of land that forms the south end of Rainbow Beach (i.e. beyond the Beach's swimming area. The water temperature at the start was 17.8 degrees C with a slight chop on the water, and the wind out of the north-east. By the time she had swum 7.25 hours (the termination time of her first attempt), she was encountering some shoulder pain and had covered only 15 km, compared to the 18.6 km of the first attempt. Around 5:00 am on August 24th, Paula was starting to feel the coolness of the morning air.  Two support swimmers, alternated being in the water with Paula from 7:10 am through to 15 minutes before the finish at 8:02 pm. Paula landed at Central Park Beach, Michigan City, Indiana, after being in the water for 25 hours 38 minutes and completing a distance of 51 km. Her stroke ranged from 46 to 54 per minute throughout the swim.

A number of other swimmers have crossed Lake Michigan in swims that were not monitored by SSO; most of these swims are reported in Conrad Wennerberg's book "Wind, waves and sunburn".

In recognition of her perseverance and achievements, Paula was the 2010 recipient of the prestigious Cliff Lumsdon award.

The last photograph was taken when a group of the successful Lake Ontario lady swimmers were interviewed by Peter Gzowski on CBC radio in the Fall of 1996. The ladies are (left to right): Vicki Keith-Munro, Paula Stephanson, Kim Lumsdon, Cindy Nicholas, and Marilyn Bell - what a line-up of swimming talent!

bottom of page