Breaking the Barrier: Thirty years on

Press release

Quetico Provincial Park will celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Breaking the Barrier, the dedication of the of the Sheila Hainey Memorial Boardwalk and her son’s swim across the Park in her honour, with a special event at the Park on Saturday, August 12.

The event will include a reenactment of the final leg of Paralympian Tom Hainey’s epic cross-Quetico swim as well as a guided tour of the 800-metre boardwalk and a look at some of the additional ways the Provincial Park has improved accessibility.

The event will start at 10 a.m. on August 12. (Rain date: Aug.13, same time.)

The completion of the boardwalk along the Pickerel River in Quetico Park in 1993 was a milestone in this provincial park’s history. For the first time, people with mobility-related disabilities could experience some of the Park’s magnificent wilderness independently, in a safe and manageable way.

Sheila Hainey was a Quetico Park staffer who had first-hand experience with disability: her son Tom was born with spina bifida, a condition which his doctors expected would rob him of his legs. Sheila Hainey had other ideas. Her son’s best chance to walk would involve conditioning and strength – he had to maximize what little leg muscle he had and build his upper body to compensate.

Swimming proved to be the best way to do that. So the Haineys installed a pool and enrolled Tom in the local swim club. Within a few years Tom was up on his feet. Within a few more years, he was a local swimming champion. By the 1980s he was a world-record holding athlete, a leader in the Canadian Paralympic movement.

In 1992, his competitive career was winding down when his mother was killed in a highway accident. In recognition of her commitment to Quetico Park, officials decided to name the boardwalk in her honour. Tom Hainey wanted to commemorate her, too – the woman who gave him swimming, who helped him come to terms with his disability, and who fanned the belief he could accomplish great things.

He would swim across the Park.

Frankly, it was a crazy idea. Hainey was a pool swimmer. And while it was a canoeing paradise and often a great place for a dip, there was nothing about Quetico Park that lent itself to marathon swimming, especially for marathon swimming by a disabled athlete.

But he was able to sell his family, a couple dozen friends (many of whom will be on hand August 12), Park superintendent Jay Leather, and eventually a whole town, on the idea. Who was going to tell Tom Hainey, a kid who went from being unable to walk to a world champion, that the idea of swimming some eighty-plus kilometres of wilderness lakes was a bad idea?

In 1993, ‘accessibility’ was just entering the day-to-day consciousness of Canadians. It would be almost ten years before the enactment of the Ontarians with Disabilities Act, and more than twenty-five years before the Accessible Canada Act.

In the years since, the Quetico Park has continued to maintain the boardwalk, and upgraded facilities and added equipment that allow those with mobility issues to more fully enjoy Park wilderness.