The turbulent waters of Lake Ontario nipped at Jenna Lambert’s skin. It had been 28 hours since the 15-year-old jumped into the lake at Baird Point, New York — and several hours since she’d made any real progress.
On that summer day in 2006, she was stuck in a current that prevented her from going forwards or backwards, and the fatigue was beginning to set in. Her support team could see that and the team of boats surrounding the solo swimmer began to lead her back the way she came. The goal — to become the first woman with a physical disability to swim across Lake Ontario — was becoming more difficult by the second. Born in 1991 with cerebral palsy, Lambert uses a mobility scooter or crutches to get around. In the water, she only needs her arms.
As Lambert’s flotilla approached, her coach Vicki Keith leaned over from the kayak and asked the unthinkable: “Do you want to quit?” With so much time stalled in the current, Keith was concerned about her level of exhaustion.
This wasn’t the first or last time Lambert’s motivation would be questioned by a coach during her 14-year career with the sport. Lambert, who was born in Kingston and moved to Ottawa 10 years ago, said she drove multiple coaches and sport scientists crazy throughout her career by refusing to bring the competitive edge they were asking for.
“I trained. I loved it. I went to meets. I loved the people. I wanted to compete against myself. I wanted to win to improve my time,” she said. “But I’d rather let the next person in the next lane take the race, which makes a really terrible competitive athlete. I got a lot of flack for that.”
Occasionally, Lambert said she would get told by her coaches “take the sport more seriously.” She knew what a privilege it was to be training at such a high level, she said, but if she focused too hard on the competitiveness of the sport she would get so anxious that she would lose the fun. “And I think when you’re chasing after something, you have to find the joy in it.”
No matter how much success Lambert encountered in the water, she said her victories were always missing the thing that was most important to her: joy.
Lambert began swimming when she was a year and a half old. In the water, she was able to move in ways she couldn’t on land, due to her physical disability. “I learned how to walk in the water,” Lambert said. “The water offers so much freedom and independence.”
By age nine, she was swimming competitively. “My parents knew how much of a little mermaid I was,” she said. “The strength that I gained from the water, the movement because of my disability, it was so important for me.”
Every week, Lambert’s parents would make the 30-minute trek from their home in the village of Harrowsmith, Ont. to Kingston, to tote her and her sister to swim practice. “As parents of two little kids, it wasn’t the easiest thing to do,” she said. “But we started to swim three times a week. It was life changing.”
Lambert competed at her first national swim meet when she was 11. From there, she travelled to training camps in Florida and competitions across North America. In 2009, she completed a solo ultratriathlon — travelling from Belleville to the YMCA in downtown Ottawa via swimming, handcycling, and pushing herself in a manual wheelchair — in 48 hours. She didn’t even stop to sleep. Two years later, her swimming carried her to the Parapan American games in Guadalajara, Mexico.
It was in the early stages of her lengthy career that Lambert’s interest in marathon swimming peaked. It was another place where Lambert thought she might find her joy. Her own Lake Ontario attempt was inspired by a similar swim completed by her coach a year earlier. So, it was fitting that Keith was in the kayak beside her when she hit that fateful current, putting her own attempt in jeopardy.
Lambert was swimming close to Simcoe Island at the time and had already shot way past her estimated finish time of 24 hours. Keith told her if she needed it, Simcoe Island was a good compromise on the finish line.
“Go just swim over there, touch that rock, you’ll be done. It’ll be okay. Everybody will be proud of you,” Lambert recalls. “Everybody will understand you want to give up.”
To touch land in a marathon swim is to admit defeat. The minute a swimmer touches land, a boat, or another swimmer, it invalidates their effort. Lambert wouldn’t have it.
‘I’m not giving up. Don’t you think that I’m giving up.’”
It was at this point that Keith, an accomplished marathon swimmer herself, got in the water beside Lambert and began swimming without using her legs — just like Lambert. The next four hours ( approximately 2.5 kilometres) was the fastest leg of Lambert’s entire swim, thanks to Keith’s consistent pacing and support.
On July 19, a full 32 hours and 18 minutes after diving in, Lambert pulled herself onto shore in Kingston’s Lake Ontario Park. Her sister and fellow swimmer, Natalie Daly, was among those awaiting her arrival.
“[My sister and I] finished all our marathon swims with butterfly, which is like kind of an ode to our coach … and it’s to show you still had something left,” Daly said. “I remember when she was taking those strokes, and she came up to her walker, I brought her her shoes and I was crying. It was such an overwhelming feeling.”
Not only did she complete her marathon and become the first female with a physical disability to swim across Lake Ontario, but Lambert also raised over $250,000 for the construction of a new pool in Kingston’s YMCA. The construction of the pool led to the continued success of the Y Knot Abilities Program. Founded by Keith in 2001, the program began as a swim team for kids with physical disabilities and their able-bodied siblings to participate together. Now, the program has expanded to include a range of sports and activities. Lambert and her sister were two of its inaugural members and Lambert trained competitively with the program — except for one year— until she was 23.
The one year that Lambert spent away from her home team came after graduating high school. Pursuing an undergraduate degree in communications, Lambert went to Wilfred Laurier University and swam on the varsity team. But it didn’t take long for her to be called back to her Ottawa roots. Lambert transferred to Carleton University, finished her degree, and continued swimming competitively with her community in the Y Knot Abilities program.
But her undergraduate degree left her wanting more. She was closer to finding her joy than she was as a competitive swimmer, but it still evaded her. Finally, Lambert registered for a masters of social work at Carleton.
“I got through communications and I went, ‘How do I find [my joy]? Where is that?’” she said. “So I completed a Master of Social Work at Carleton and throughout the course of that program, I got to do some really cool things.”
That list of cool things includes working at the Ottawa Innercity Ministries, the Distress Centre of Ottawa and Region, the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre, and Carleton’s Department of Equity and Inclusive Communities.
All these experiences have sewn the threads of Lambert’s life, leading her to her current role as a student counsellor for Carleton’s ACT to Employ program, a program designed to find employment on campus or in the community for students with disabilities.Lambert began working in this role at the program’s inception while she was still a student.
As a counsellor, Lambert meets with students who identify as having a disability and connects them with employers . Every term, Lambert helps between 80 to 150 students. The idea is to ease the transition from school to workplace. Since she started with the program in 2018, it has grown to include over 1,200 students.
Daly said she thinks the job her sister ended up in makes perfect sense. “[Jenna’s and my] goal is to help people and Jenna does that through finding meaningful employment for people with disabilities,” Daly said.
On the fourth floor of Carleton’s Tory Building, a corner office has become home for Lambert since transitioning from student to employee. The windowless space is brightened by supportive messages and thank-you cards from her community.
When she’s not in her rolling office chair taking back to back meetings with students, being in the water is still a huge part of Lambert’s life. Recently married, water played a poignant part in her wedding ceremony. Lambert’s first dance and daddy-daughter dance were both done in the pool at the Delta Hotel in Kingston and live streamed into the reception room for Lambert’s guests to watch. In the water, Lambert’s anxiety about dancing in front of a crowd just melted away.