The Swim Angels program shines

Bring on the Bay open water swim event offers unique and inclusive service

When Sandra Roberts of Ottawa began her quest to become a triathlete in 2016, she had to overcome a strong fear of swimming in open water. On her first attempt to swim in Meech Lake she never made it past the changing hut after looking at the black water in the lake. She found it so terrifying that she turned around and drove back home.

A few weeks later she heard about the Swim Angel Program offered by the Bring on the Bay (BOTB) 3K open water swim event in the Ottawa River and decided to register. She credits the program with providing her with the confidence she needed to swim in open water surrounded by hundreds of other swimmers.

"Now the open water swim is my favourite," she says. "And I attribute this completely to the positive experience I had in my first race in open water."

The Swim Angel program, created by Jeff Mackwood in 2015, has become an integral part of the BOTB event. The inspiration for the program came a year earlier when a friend of Mackwood's told him that she wanted to participate in the race but could not do so safely because she has epilepsy.

"I offered to angel her, which means that I would swim alongside her throughout the race," he said. "After helping her achieve her goal of finishing the swim, I approached the BOTB organizers and suggested the creation of a formal Swim Angel program."

With their approval, Mackwood launched the program in time for the 2015 event.

Bring on the Bay, which takes place this year on Saturday, July 13, starts at the Nepean Sailing Club and finishes at the Britannia Yacht Club. It is one of only a few major open water swim events with a Swim Angel program.

According to Mackwood, a swim angel is an experienced distance swimmer who provides an extra measure of confidence and safety for swimmers who are physically able to complete the race but could (or would) not do it (safely) without having an angel present. If required during the race, the angel provides reassurance and encouragement to their swimmer in order to help them to avoid panic and to be able to finish the race.

If the swimmer needs to be pulled from the race, they will provide immediate assistance until a nearby kayak/boat arrives.

In the program's inaugural year, angels were provided for one swimmer with cerebral palsy, two blind/visually impaired swimmers, and three swimmers with anxiety or fear of open water. Since then, the program has continued to grow.

When swimmers register, they can request a swim angel. They are required to give a brief reason as to why they think they need an angel. Program organizers discuss personal requirements with them to get a fuller understanding, and then match them with the volunteer angels most suited to their needs.

Prior to race day, the angels receive dryland training to discuss the program and what to expect on race day. On the evening before the race, the angels meet their swimmer matches during an orientation session. Then they take to the water for safety training led by Chris Wagg, vice president of public education with the Lifesaving Society.

These sessions are important for instilling confidence in swimmers with disabilities or apprehension of open water. Shelley Ann Morris, a visually impaired triathlete who has completed BOTB four times with the help of angel George Hajecek, notes that the event is "extremely safe, with pre-race training for angels and swimmers alike. Many boats are stationed along the course to create a safe route and to assist those who may not complete the swim." She adds that without the help of her angel, "I'd still be on dry land."

Now in its 13th year, BOTB has grown from a handful of swimmers the first year to an anticipated 950 swimmers this year, making it one of Canada's largest open water swim events.

With the addition of the Swim Angel program in 2015, it is also one of the most inclusive swim events in the country. It is a fitting addition, as all proceeds from the event are donated to Easter Seals Ontario to benefit children with physical disabilities in the Ottawa area. Swim angels make it possible for anyone who wants to participate to do so safely and confidently.

Roberts remembers how it felt to be part of BOTB for the first time, accompanied by her angel, Audrey Prayal-Brown. “Holy moly! It was amazing! There were loads of support boats to watch over us—some were dressed as pirates! The yachts were lined up to the right of us with people cheering us on. I felt very confident all the way across with Audrey by my side.” The following year, she completed the swim on her own.

Hajecek will be back this year for the fifth time as a swim angel.

"Swimming in open water can be a frightening and challenging experience for anyone," he explains. "The uncertainty of the water depth, fear around contact with weeds, waves, and current are all reasons that could hold people back from trying. The Swim Angel program is there to support anyone that wants to swim BOTB and wants the support of another swimmer by their side. I would encourage anyone who wants to try open water swimming to come out. The experience will be life-changing."

Anyone who needs a swim angel can indicate their requirement by selecting the checkbox on the BOTB registration page. Those wishing to volunteer as a swim angel should send an email to for more information.

By Tim Scapillato 

Photo credit top:  Sandra Roberts, left, embraces her swim angel, Audrey Prayal-Brown, at the finish of the 2016 Bring On the Bay 3K open water swim.



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