Swimmer breaks record to raise funds for neurodegenerative disease research

Record breaking swimmer Sean Nuttall Art by Taylor Kristan / photos by Sean Nuttall

Swimmer Sean Nuttall took on a 100-km swim across Lake Ontario to raise funds for neurodegenerative disease research, breaking the record for longest unassisted open-water swim by a Canadian in the process. 

Nuttall swam from his hometown of Toronto, Ont. to St. Catharines, Ont. and back—a trip which totalled 42 hours. Not only was this the longest unassisted open water swim by a Canadian, it was also the longest unassisted swim in Canadian waters, and the eighth longest on record in the world. 

Nuttall took on this challenge to commemorate his father who passed away five years ago after struggling with a neurodegenerative disease. His goal was to raise $50,000 for the Tanz Centre for Research in Neurodegenerative Diseases out of the University of Toronto. “Because this was the five year anniversary and because this was the biggest swim that I had tried, I wanted to do something in his memory,” he says.

The swim was unassisted, which meant Nuttall couldn’t wear a lifejacket or wetsuit, or be helped by any currents. He was in the water from Friday at noon to early Sunday morning, swimming through both Friday and Saturday night. He only returned to land to briefly reapply sunscreen at the halfway point.

Nuttall had a crew in a boat to guide and accompany him as he swam. To help him refuel, Nuttall’s team would attach food and water to the end of a line of rope, and toss it out to him. Nuttall would retrieve the supplies and consume them while treading water, and his crew would reel the line back in. 

This wasn’t Nuttall’s first kick at the can as far as long-distance open-water swimming goes. He’d finished three other long-distance routes regarded as the “Triple Crown” of open-water swimming—the English Channel, the Catalina Channel, and the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim. 

Other swims felt more physically demanding, says Nuttall, but this swim had its own set of challenges. On the second night of his swim, Nuttall started to feel incredibly cold. His team was monitoring his internal temperature, and despite how Nuttall was feeling, they found he was still maintaining his internal heat. Nuttall relied on their reassurance to continue through the frigidness, fear, and pain. “You’re basically naked other than a Speedo. And your reptilian brain is telling you this is not okay,” he says. “I relied really heavily on my crew to get me through that time.”

The swim also had some incredible high points, says Nuttall. He happened to be swimming during two astronomical events: August’s supermoon and the Perseid Meteor Shower. “Both nights I watched that huge orange orb come right up off the lake,” he says, adding that he could also see shooting stars from the meteor shower flying overhead. “It was magical.”

When his journey was finally over, Nuttall was greeted by a large group of loved ones who came out to show their support at Budapest Park in Toronto at around 8 a.m. on Sunday morning. While many of his previous long distance swims finished in cathartic tears, this one ended with a moment of jubilation. “It really quickly just became a moment of shared joy,” he says. 

Nuttall says he is extremely close to reaching his fundraising goal, a mark he hopes he can still hit. While more long distance swims may be on the horizon eventually, Nuttall is now taking some time to recover. “My immediate goal is to be able to lift my arms again,” he says. 

Donations can be made at

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