After 15 more minutes, the crisis passed as suddenly as it had arrived. The next day the muscles of her chest, neck and arms felt bruised, but two days later she went straight from the hospital to the airport to catch her plane for London. She claims that her two unsuccessful attempts at a three-way last summer were unaffected by her illness, but she admits that if the weather had allowed a swim longer than 18:35, things might have been different. Her last fever occurred in March, and although she still periodically consults a Toronto tropical-disease specialist, she thinks it's primarily to satisfy his professional curiosity, there being few victims of such diseases around Lake Ontario.
Most marathon swimmers train outdoors from May until September, but water temperatures in many lakes in Ontario are still in the 40s in May, so Nicholas stays indoors until July, swimming six or eight high-quality miles a day with two local swim clubs.
In mid-July, when the waters north of Toronto have warmed, the Nicholas family moves for two weeks to a rented cabin on Penetang Lake, 100 miles away. There Cindy becomes reaccustomed to cold and choppy water, to swimming without turns and without lines on the bottom to guide her. She gets used to lifting her head to look around, to running into debris and to the knowledge that yucky things lurk unseen in the water.
"Imagine if you could see the bottom of the Channel!" she says. "There are always things biting at your feet, slimy things. I close my eyes. I don't want to know what they are." Her only reward at Penetang Lake is that she can sleep in until 6:30—two hours later than her schedule the rest of the year permits. She swims 12 miles a day there, back and forth across the 1�-mile-wide lake at a pace of 22� to 23 minutes a mile, with two-minute rests between crossings. Jim is always at her side in an aluminum boat with an outboard motor, both to keep her company during her lonely hours and to fend off other boats.
Jim has been beside his daughter from the beginning. He was a swimmer himself when he was young, and he taught Cindy, his only child, to swim when she was 2�. She began competing at five and reached her peak as an age-group swimmer in the 10-to-12 bracket when she held several Ontario and Canadian records in freestyle, butterfly and backstroke events. After that the returns on her training gradually diminished. She still harbors an almost morbid distaste for birthdays, which she dates to her age-group swimming period when a birthday meant plunging overnight from the top of the heap in the 12-and-unders to the cellar of the 14-and-unders.
Her switch to marathon swimming came when she was 16, and it occurred quite suddenly. One day father and daughter were looking down at the vast-ness of Lake Ontario and talking about Marilyn Bell, who first swam it in 1955. "We thought, wouldn't it be nice if I did it," says Cindy.
On Aug. 16, 1974, with a compass, a 10-foot wooden dinghy, a 10-hp. outboard motor, a reporter from the Toronto Globe and Mail who was pursuing a scoop, a sack of leftovers from the fridge and no idea at all what they were doing—"I mean green, green, green!" says Cindy—Jim and Cindy set out for the starting point at Youngstown, N.Y., 32 miles across the lake from Toronto. Arriving there at 2 a.m., Cindy talked two boys with a larger boat into accompanying them in exchange for free gas, and they were off. At 8 a.m. the boys announced they had to leave, and for the next five hours the little party was alone, far from the sight of shore. Finally, with 14 miles to go, the pilot of a small plane noticed them and spread the word that someone was trying to swim the lake. Because no one had attempted it for 13 years, the news stirred up some excitement on the waterfront, and before long a flotilla of small boats had appeared to escort Cindy the rest of the way.
She finished at Ontario Place, site of the Canadian National Exhibition in the center of Toronto's lakefront, in 15:10. The first thing she did was stand up too quickly and faint. The next was to hold a press conference. When a reporter asked what she was going to do next, she said, "You mean I have to do something else?"
"I didn't consider myself a longdistance swimmer," she says. "I was just swimming Lake Ontario. But he said, 'Well, you must do the Channel,' so I said, 'O.K., fine. Whatever.' "
Thus a Channel swimmer was born. The next year, 1975, before she had even heard of Gertrude Ederle, 17-year-old Cynthia Maria Theresa Nicholas swam the Channel, England to France, in the then-record time of 9:46. Because it was the 100th anniversary of the first swim, the Channel Swimming Association presented her with the Captain Webb Silver Salver, and she was hooked.