Celebrating the 30th anniversary of Breaking the Barrier

Thirty years ago, Atikokan resident and paralympic gold medalist Tom Hainey historically swam across the entire length of Quetico Provincial Park in the Breaking the Barrier Swim.

This swim honoured Tom Hainey’s mother and long-time Quetico employee, Sheila Hainey, who had recently passed away in a car crash.

This year on August 12, a gathering will be held at Quetico’s Dawson Trail Campground to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Tom Hainey’s swim and the dedication of a barrier-free boardwalk to his mother Sheila.

Building the barrier-free boardwalk

In 1991, a barrier-free boardwalk was constructed to connect the Heritage Pavilion (Visitor Centre) to the main day use area at Quetico’s Dawson Trail Campground.

collage of people on boardwalk
Dave Dissette and Chuck Miller build the boardwalk, Terry Johnson on boardwalk

The 800 m accessible boardwalk follows the meandering Pickerel River on its way to French Lake, and immerses trail users in the peace and tranquility of forest and riverbank.

map of boardwalk

Breaking the barrier

In August of 1993, with the aid of many dedicated volunteers and the support of the Atikokan community, Tom set off into the park from Beaverhouse Lake in the northwest corner of Quetico.

group standing on site
Tom’s support team prepares at Beaverhouse Entry Station. Photo: Mike McKinnon, Atikokan Progress

For five days, Tom and his support team pushed eastward.

person swimming in water
Tom swims. Photo: Mike McKinnon, Atikokan Progress

Some members of Tom’s support team accompanied him by canoe to keep him on course as he traversed some very large lakes.

collage of photos
Tom warms up after a big swim. Photo: Mike McKinnon, Atikokan Progress, Physiotherapist Susan Armstrong tries to keep Tom’s muscles loose during a lunch break. Brenda Hainey, Tom’s sister, kneels beside. Photo: Randy Makarenko and Pauline Gashinski

The rest of his support team canoed ahead to set up rest stops and to camp.

group of people cheering on swimmer in lake
Tom arrives and celebrates at French Lake Beach on day 5 of his audacious swim. Photo: Randy Makarenko and Pauline Gashinski

Tom swam over 80 km across the park, and made it to the Dawson Trail Campground on French Lake in time for a grand welcome at the main day use area.

map of tom's route

Honouring Sheila Hainey

Tom Hainey’s mother, Sheila, worked at Quetico for 18 years and was very connected to the park.

On a spring day in 1992, Sheila left the park at lunch and was in a car accident.

She tragically passed away.

Sheila blows out her birthday candles in the staff lunchroom
Sheila blows out her birthday candles in the staff lunchroom

After her death, park staff suggested that the newly constructed barrier-free boardwalk trail be named in her honour. This idea was supported by the Hainey family and park administration alike.

The boardwalk officially became the Sheila Hainey Memorial Boardwalk at a ceremony following Tom Hainey’s Breaking the Barrier swim across the park.

At the ceremony, Tom’s sister Tammy spoke about Sheila Hainey and explained why naming the barrier-free trail after her was so fitting:

“Most of us, and fortunately so, will never experience the heartache of being told that one of our children will never walk. Our mother faced this with Tommy, but her reaction was not typical. Instead of overprotecting him and sheltering him, she allowed him to challenge himself and never once allowed him to feel sorry for himself.”

person giving speech in front of crowd
Tom gives a speech at French Lake

“Our mother was feisty, determined and had unwavering resolve to make sure that the spina bifida he was born with did not in any way limit his life. Those qualities of our mother are so evident that they not only led to Tommy’s success today, but they also prompted the [then] Ministry of Natural Resources to dedicate this trail.”

Tom’s Breaking the Barrier swim remains inspiring to this day and is an important part of Quetico’s 100+ year history.

Join the celebration!

person on boardwalk
Sheila Hainey Memorial Boardwalk

Are you around Quetico on August 12?

Join us for the 30th anniversary celebration of Tom’s Breaking the Barrier swim across Quetico and the original dedication of the barrier-free boardwalk at the Dawson Trail Campground.

Tom Hainey will open the event by swimming across French Lake to the day use beach area, the exact same spot where he concluded his swim 30 years ago.

After Tom’s arrival, speakers will share stories from the original swim.

This will be followed by a guided hike on the Sheila Hainey Memorial Boardwalk.

Accessibility at Quetico

Since the construction of the Sheila Hainey Memorial Boardwalk, Quetico Provincial Park has continued to introduce new accessibility features at the Dawson Trail Campground.

In addition to the boardwalk, the park now features an accessible pathway and beach mats to facilitate water access.

staff with All-terrain wheelchair and a floating wheelchair
All-terrain wheelchair and a floating wheelchair available free for loan from the Heritage Pavilion at the Dawson Trail Campground. These chairs require a helper to push them

The park also loans out an all-terrain wheelchair and a floating wheelchair for use on the trails or the beach.