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STROKE OF BAD LUCK : Current Sinks Canadian Swimmer’s Record Attempt

Times Staff Writer

The excruciating pain in her joints started only two hours after Vicki Keith plunged into the Catalina Channel, determined to be the first person to propel herself across the 21-mile waterway using the powerful but exhausting butterfly stroke.

Later came the hallucinations-- images of huge supertankers glided within inches of her face. For hours Keith fought sleep, battling raging waters that kept pushing her farther from shore. During her last eight hours in the water, she progressed only half a mile.

Finally, at 3:19 a.m Friday, 19 hours and 19 minutes after she started, the 28-year-old Canadian schoolteacher, who only three weeks ago became the first swimmer to cross the English Channel using the butterfly stroke, gave up.

‘My Best Shot’

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Instead of splashing onto Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro early Friday morning as had been planned, she stepped off a boat onto a public landing at the Los Angeles Harbor, trying hard not to show her disappointment.

Wearing a blue Windbreaker with the word CANADIAN emblazoned across her chest and red jogging pants, Keith flashed a broad grin. “I don’t consider this a failure,” she was quick to comment. “I figure I just went out there and gave it my best shot. . . . I hate the word failure.”

Keith’s swim was organized by Variety’s Children’s Charities to benefit the UCLA Children’s Artificial Limb Bank and the Pediatric AIDS Clinic at County-USC Medical Center. Individuals and groups were asked to call a 976 number with a $2 charge going to charity.

Variety officials in Los Angeles declined to say how much money was raised, but some said the amount will be only a fraction of the $550,000 Keith raised to help Variety in Toronto build a world-class aquatic center for disabled children.

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Keith, who last summer became the first person to swim across all five Great Lakes, had not expected any major obstacles in this week’s swim. The water in the channel is considerably warmer than the Great Lakes and the projected 21-hour swim was much shorter than the 53 hours she took to cross Lake Michigan alone last year.

Keith said the channel is the cleanest of the waterways in which she has swum. “When I came out of the Sydney Harbor, I (was) drenched in oil. You couldn’t see me.”

‘A Perfect Day’

When Keith left Santa Catalina Island’s Emerald Bay on Thursday, the crew of the Golden Greek, the 42-foot powerboat that accompanied her, predicted that she would complete the swim in 12 hours.

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“It was a perfect day. The waters were calm and she was making about 1.3 miles an hour,” said John York of the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation, who crossed the channel in freestyle fashion five times--a record.

Keith would have been the 62nd person to make the crossing but the first to do it using the butterfly stroke.

She said her difficulties began when she least expected them. She ignored both the throbbing pain in her left ankle, right knee and right wrist and the sting from jellyfish. “They were not as bad as the English Channel. I still have marks from that,” she said.

Keith stopped almost every hour to accept hot chocolate and water from the crew, who included her brother, Ronald. But the sugar imbalance and sleep deprivation began taking their toll after about 10 hours as the waters got choppier.

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Keith was swimming in a part of the channel where the water gets choppier and swimmers make little or no progress. For about eight hours she tried to swim against the currents but remained virtually in the same spot.

Began Falling Asleep

Six miles from shore, York said, Keith began to fall asleep in the water. She was told she had barely moved in the last eight hours and had to make a decision soon.

The crew told Keith that it was better for her to stop than to jeopardize her other plans. Keith plans to swim across the Strait of Juan de Fuca near British Columbia, Lake Winnipeg and Lake Ontario to raise funds for a variety of projects during the next six weeks.

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“I then decided that it didn’t make much sense continuing,” she said. “I guess it was more than my body could take . . . after the English Channel.”

To the waiting reporters, Keith said: “This should not deter people from contributing to the charities. I’m doing it for the kids. I want them to know that they can still reach for their dreams.”

As Keith limped up the gangplank to a Jeep waiting to take her to her hotel, she vowed to return to Los Angeles “to conquer the Catalina.”

“But right now, I’m gonna crawl into my bed, curl up and sleep.”

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