Inspirational: Tickle Swim

The 5th Annual Tickle Swim aims to raise awareness surrounding mental health issues in our province, and the inherent need for all of society to maintain good mental fitness


Paula Kelly – a Newfoundlander who was a member of Canada’s 1980 Olympic swim team – will join about 20 other mental health advocates on a 5-kilometre swim across the ocean from Bell Island to Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s on August 19.

5th Annual Tickle Swim

An initiative of the Canadian Mental Health Association, Newfoundland and Labrador, the 5th Annual Tickle Swim raises funds for and awareness of mental health issues in the province. It also promotes the fact that good physical fitness leads to better mental health. 

“Physical exercise is extremely important to help with getting through some tough challenges that life throws at us and certainly helps keep me grounded,” Kelly said during a recent phone interview.

This is Kelly’s first year participating in the Tickle Swim.

“I remember watching it on TV and thinking, “My gosh, these people are so brave,” Kelly said lightheartedly.

Kelly is a member of Sport NL Hall of Fame. Information on the group’s website ( notes that Kelly started swimming at a young age and by age 12 qualified and swam in the 1977 Jeux Canada Games held at the Aquarena in St. John’s.

In 1980 she was voted the St. John’s and Newfoundland Athlete of the Year.

Kelly brought home medals from international competitions over the years and became the first swimmer from this province to represent Canada at the Olympics. Unfortunately, the year she made the Olympic team (1980), Canadians boycotted the Olympics and Kelly never got the opportunity to compete.

Kelly will always live with the what-ifs that surround her Olympic dream.

“Every year when the Olympics come around I think, I wonder what it would have been like if I had gone,” she said.

About the Swim

Community activist Sheilagh O’Leary conceived the swim and seven swimmers took to the waters during the initial year. In total the swim has raised over $30,000 for the cause.

“My first thoughts were that swimming in that dark ocean creeps me out. My biggest challenge is to get over that,” Kelly said of her initial reaction when O’Leary approached her about doing the Tickle Swim this year.

While the swim get underway at about 7 am and, according to the event’s website (, whether or not it goes ahead depends on the sea and weather condition.

There are no specific training guidelines as participants vary greatly in age, experience, and ability and while not an extreme distance, the website notes, that the swim is not to be taken lightly.

A Rewarding swim

As the swimmers take to the ocean, swell can be significant, making the swim much harder than it would in a pond or lake.

Organizers equate the swim to running a half marathon (21-kilometres).

For Kelly, knowing her efforts are going towards mental health initiatives will make the swim worthwhile and rewarding. The funds raised by swimmers are much needed, she said, for the work done by CHMA-NL.

“Everybody is impacted by this one way or another because mental health is so important. Even to maintain a healthy level of mental health is important,” she said.

In 2016, the City of St. John’s named its new aquatics centre after Kelly.

The Paula Kelly Aquatic Centre honours Kelly’s contribution to swimming and healthy living in the province.

Kelly describes the Tickle Swim as a challenge of mental ability.

“You have to keep going by putting one arm in front of the other, stroke by stroke, and you’ll get to the other side. And that can be compared to things that come about in life,” she said.

Overcome Obstacles

Life throws people many curveballs, Kelly said, and physical exercise provides an outlet to overcome obstacles that come our way. “Not everything goes the way you think it will. And with physical exercise, you learn not to give up. You don’t quit. You figure out another way to get around things,” she said.

For more information or to make a donation in honour of a swimmer visit

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