STROBEL: Swimming saved Ruby’s life

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Swimming was Vicki Keith’s life.


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In her storied career, she swam all five Great Lakes, including a double crossing of Lake Ontario, the English Channel, Juan de Fuca Strait, Catalina Channel and Sydney Harbour.

I hear she even gazed at the Pacific Ocean with a glint in her eye.

Swimming is also Ruby Stevens’ life. I mean, it SAVED Ruby’s life.

At age 10, Ruby was at low tide.

“She asked me to kill her,” says her mom, Sara Stevens. “It was incredibly heartbreaking. She was so lost and tiny.”

The world seemed stacked against Ruby. An array of conditions beset her, including autism, dystonia and cerebral palsy. There were voices in her head and at one point, she was in hospital, sedated.

“Truthfully, I don’t remember a lot about that time, when I was young and struggling,” says Ruby. “But I do remember that all I wanted to do was go swimming.”


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“Swimming saved her life, 100%,” says her mom.

Canadian marathon swimmer and coach Vicki Keith (L) at Variety Village with Paralympic swimmer Ruby Stevens (R) on Friday, Dec. 17, 2021.
Canadian marathon swimmer and coach Vicki Keith (L) at Variety Village with Paralympic swimmer Ruby Stevens (R) on Friday, Dec. 17, 2021. Photo by Veronica Henri /Toronto Sun/Postmedia Network

Now, Ruby is 19 and powerful and has her sights set on Paralympic glory in the pool.

Vicki Keith is her new coach at Variety Village.

I meet them, and Sara Stevens, at the Village Sunshine Pool. Keith — and the Sun — helped get that pool built in the 1980s. Countless kids with disabilities have splashed its laps, some becoming great champions.

Ruby started in synchronized swimming at the Village, won an armful of medals, then switched to speed events with Variety’s iconic Flames team.

COVID-19 cancelled meets, but Ruby kept training.

She hoisted tons of weights and sped around a track on a hand-bike. In a friend’s backyard pool, she tethered herself with a bungee cord and swam in place for an hour and a half. She did this until after Thanksgiving, with her mother bundled up by an outdoor fireplace.


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Keith says, “Ruby’s fierce, she’s powerful physically and mentally. It’s what I look for in an athlete. Competitive nature. Willingness to push and to learn.

“COVID has been challenging for many athletes. The dedicated ones are still training, even without competition.”

We apologize, but this video has failed to load.

Meets in Saskatoon and Charlotte, North Carolina, have helped revive that competitive spirit in the past two months, though Ruby is waiting for her para swimming rating, based on level of disability, a bit like a golfer’s handicap.

Watching her swim will give you shivers. Dystonia freezes her hips, so she can’t kick, and she hauls herself through the water with arms only, and even then her left arm won’t fully rotate.

Try it some time. You will probably drown.


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On dry land, Ruby uses a walker, or a wheelchair for long distances and after swimming, when her legs don’t work much at all.

But water is her element. In that dark time a decade ago, she would sink into the pool’s embrace to mute those voices in her head.

“The water has a silky feeling that is very therapeutic,” she says.

“I know exactly what Ruby is talking about,” says her new coach. “You hit the water and there’s a complete calm and the sound and the light soften. I love the silence.”

Keith specializes in coaching swimmers with disabilities. She helmed the Flames 30 years ago, then left to form her own team in Kingston. Her husband, John Munro, who also swam Lakes Ontario and Erie, died a year ago, just a few months after being stricken with dementia.


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  2. Alessandra Folts is full of energy and enthusiasm at Variety Village.

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  4. Nancy Enright is pictured at Variety Village while speaking with her two brothers, Anthony (L) and Daniel (R) on Dec. 8, 2021.

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So, Keith has reset her own life by returning to the Village.

She sees much of herself in Ruby Stevens.

Says Keith: “Ruby is a strong, powerful woman who knows what she wants and is doing everything she can to get there.”

“My ultimate goal,” says Ruby, “is to make it to the Paralympics and to set a world record.”

“She’s on the right track,” says her new coach.

“They’re my dream team,” says Ruby’s mom.

We apologize, but this video has failed to load.


Speaking of records, we’ve shattered one. The 2021 Sun Christmas Fund for Variety Village has already reached $98,468, burying the old total mark of $75,508 set last year. You can help push us to $100 grand and beyond by donating at . There, or at , you can also order my new book, Small Miracles: The Inspiring Kids of Variety Village . All sales go to the fund for that iconic Scarborough sports centre geared to kids with disabilities.


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Here’s the honour roll of recent fund donors:

Norah Czindl, Midland, $25

Rob & Karen Rouse, Scarborough, $100

Anonymous, $75

Anonymous, $25

Salima Neek Gilani, Brampton, $100

Walter Pedersen, Scarborough, $100

John MacLean, Niagara Falls, $50

Steve Gormick, Toronto, $20

Bailey Penney, Pickering, $200

Deborah Groppo, Mississauga, in memory of Jesse Allison, $50

Anonymous, $200

Megan Whittingham, Kirkland, $50

Everett Lamb, Richmond Hill, $12

Tracy Nicholson, Toronto, $100

Steven Ord, Toronto, $50

Michael Barbetta, Oakville, $200

Anonymous, $100

Rocky Scigliano, Toronto, $60

Danny Hysen, Etobicoke, $50

Glen Farr, Toronto, $20

Catherine Clarke, Thame, $10

Pasquale Filippelli, Hamilton, $50

William McGuinty, Pickering, $200


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Stephen Burns, Scarborough, $100

Tim Peckham, Toronto, $50

Baby Jack Parker, Toronto, $100

Peter Cuthbert, Scarborough, $5,000

Marilyn Jang, Scarborough, $25

Francesco Ascenzo, Toronto, $100

Mark MacVittie, Burlington, $200

Megan Baker, Toronto, $150

Anonymous, $50

Anonymous, $225

Ian & Mayda Forrester, Newmarket, $100

Charles & Bonnie Marmoreo, Etobicoke , $100

Judy Pelligra, Scarborough, $50

Graeme Duff, Toronto, $500

Henry G.J.G. Godzik, Toronto, $75

George Renwick, Bolton, $25

Maria Teresa Turchetti, Scarborough, $100

Roman Preobrazenski, Mississauga, $200

John Love, St. Catharines, $100

C3 Toronto, Toronto, $400

William & Irene Smith, Toronto, $100

Phil LeBlanc, Guelph, in memory of Dr. Philip & Mrs. Diana LeBlanc, $100


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Irwin Tauben, Montreal, $100

Karen Foley, Toronto, $250

SUN50, Toronto, $10,800

Steve & Rita Warlow, Whitby, $100

Mark Toljagic, Toronto, $100

Charlene Lee, Toronto, $100

Karen Truster, Thornhill, $100

Carol Mclardy, Toronto, $50

Anonymous, $50

Chris Peters, Toronto, $5

Pavlo Kaverzin, North York, $40

Rebecca VanderBurgh, Toronto, $100

Brian Heaton, Oshawa, $20

Michael T. Wall, Pickering, $100

Jack Borstman, Ajax, $200

John Hoffman, Toronto, $200

Doug Cain, East York, $50

Donna Firman, Toronto, $50

Ann Spall, Kitchener, $100

John & Georgia Lewis, Erin, $50

Ana Scriver, Toronto, $30

Roger Chambers, Peterborough, $200

Ronald & Donna Breen, Scarborough, $100

Anne Ryan, Toronto, $100

Angelo Lamanna, Scarborough, $75

Esther Goldberg, Toronto, $15

Sandy Palleschi, Mississauga, $200

Ron Archibald, Uxbridge, $75

TOTAL TO DATE: $98,468


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