News / Kitchener

New Hamburg swimmer hopes to become the youngest man to swim Lake Ontario

NEW HAMBURG — If you're attempting to swim across Lake Ontario, Alex Buehlow suggests you start taking some cold showers. Lots of them.

The 18-year-old Special Olympics gold medallist, a competitive swimmer since he was a child, has the stamina to swim incredibly long distances. But it's the cold he's most worried about, in a lake where the 17 C water can cause hypothermia after several hours without a break.

On Aug. 12, Buehlow hopes to swim his greatest challenge yet — a 50.5-kilometre trek across Lake Ontario battling open water, muscle-numbing cold temperatures and sheer exhaustion.

If he's successful, the Bright resident will become the youngest male to ever complete the crossing. He also hopes to set a new time record, beating the current best of 13 hours and 49 minutes — and do it in the daytime, when waves can be higher and there's more boat traffic to get in the way.

Oh, and he also wants to raise $100,000 for Three to Be, a charity that funds research into children's neurological disorders, as part of his challenge called Waves of Hope.

Buehlow's big swim idea started as a challenge from his coach Joni Maerten-Sanders last summer.

"As a joke, she said, 'So. A 14-year-old girl swam across Lake Ontario. I bet you can do it,' " he said. "I was just kind of like, 'Are you serious?' "

It soon became serious for Buehlow, who swims with the Wilmot Aquatic Aces club in New Hamburg. He decided he wanted to do something for Three to Be because he knows what it's like to live with a neurological disorder.

The 18-year-old was diagnosed with autism at age four, and found swimming the perfect fit for his disability. He hopes others are inspired by his epic swim, and may rethink their preconceptions of people with autism.

"It proves that even though you have a disability, whether it's mental or physical, you're not limited in the things you can do," he said.

Besides taking cold showers, Buehlow said he's been prepping by swimming in open water at Guelph Lake, Pinehurst Lake near Ayr, Deer Creek near Long Point and in Lake Ontario, doing stints of up to 12 kilometres at a time. In one recent training session, he was battling waves over a metre high head-on.

Once Buehlow begins his lake swim, a few strict rules come into play. He can't touch any of the boats that will be going along with him, carrying a support crew of coaches, paramedics and navigators in kayaks, sailboats and Zodiacs.

And he can't wear a bodysuit, just a Speedo, but he can insulate himself from the cold by slathering on lanolin, a protective grease derived from sheep's wool.

"I'm going to look like a white ghost," he said.

He'd like people to come cheer him on at Marilyn Bell Park in Toronto, where he hopes to arrive on Aug. 12 between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. after leaving Niagara-on-the-Lake at 4 that morning.

If the weather is uncooperative, Buehlow and his team will push his swim back a day, to Aug. 13. To follow Buehlow's challenge or to offer support, visit the Waves of Hope Lake Ontario Crossing on Facebook.

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