Perhaps she was just too determined. Halli Reid looks back on what motivated
her to become the first woman to swim across Lake Erie on that August day
in 1993. She was 21, and her college swim coach was just one of many people
telling her she couldn’t do it.
“He said I was too young, that women don’t reach their optimum
endurance fitness level until they’re in their 30s.” she recalls. “I
cried over that meeting.”
There were others. The guys she worked with that summer in her father’s
lumber yard scoffed at her ambition. When she contacted the man who prepared
Bob North and Harvey Snell for their swim across Lake Erie, he took one look
at her 5 foot 2 inch frame and abruptly said, “I thought you’d
“He said he couldn’t help me,” says Halli, recalling the
Ironically, North and Snell were part of what motivated her to make the
historic swim. She remembers sitting on the beach with her sister, Sarah,
in 1989 waiting for the two men to swim in from Canada.
“I was really caught up in the emotion and excitement of it,” Halli
explains. “The suspense was awesome, and then, finally, we saw these
tiny little specks on the horizon. They made it, and they were so intense,
proud, exhausted,” says Halli. “I was inspired.”
At breakfast later that morning, she looked at her sister and said, “I
could do that.” It wasn’t the first time her sister would become
an accomplice to Halli’s strong will and determination.
The tiny blonde Reid girls were still in preschool when they would take
their little wooden rowboat straight out into the lake. While the family
lived in North East, Pennsylvania, a mere mile from the shore, they spent
every summer living in a two-room cottage on the beach.
“All the fishermen knew us,” Halli says, “and as we passed
them they’d wave, then radio my dad and tell him where we were. When
we’d gone far enough, my dad would have one of the guys tell us it
was time to turn around and row home.”
Halli remembers rowing that boat until they could no longer see the shoreline.
Then she’d say to her sister, “Let’s row to Canada!” Of
course, the fishermen sent them home before they could make it to Canada,
but the thought of such an adventure was firmly planted in Halli’s
When she was 11, Halli’s dad bought a 16-foot Boston Whaler and she
spent hours on the craft, sometimes alone, in love with the lake and with
the peace it brought her. As she grew older she spent summers swimming competitively,
coaching younger kids, and lifeguarding at Freeport Beach. She graduated
from Penn State in 1991 and, despite the naysayers, began immediately training
to swim across Lake Erie.
During the next year Halli got up at 4:30 a.m. six days a week to swim.
She swam every night for another three hours. No amount of training, however,
could overcome the facts.
“I trained to make the swim in 1992,” Halli explains, “but
the lake was too cold that year. Plus, my doctor told me that I’d have
to gain a lot more weight if I wanted to make it. I was disappointed, but
I had no choice.”
The postponement meant another year of grueling training. It also meant
gaining 20 pounds, which wasn’t easy for the petite swimmer. By the
summer of 1993, Halli was ready, and so was Lake Erie. But the window of
opportunity to swim across Lake Erie would be small—from late July
through August 10, when the lake temperatures and winds would be optimal.
“We started observing lake conditions about mid-July,” Halli
says. “My team had to be on 24-hour notice, in case the weather looked
right. It was nervewracking watching and waiting.”
Finally, on the afternoon of August 8, 1993, Halli and her team got into
their boats and headed across the lake to Long Point, Ontario. She was about
to make the 26-mile swim back home. “The swim started out great,” Halli
remembers, “then about midnight I got really cold. I was feeling miserable,
but my brother told me I was already half way, so I thought since I had already
made it that far, I could keep going.”
Her brother had lied to her, but it worked. Halli continued. About 4 a.m.
her shoulder started to hurt. At 5 a.m. the winds picked up and kept pushing
her off course. “The end of the swim was the hardest,” recalls
Halli. “I don’t even remember swimming the last mile.”
Those who watched her walk onto Freeport Beach at 10:30 a.m. on August 9,
however, vividly remember it. Her parents and the kids she coached in swim
club were there, along with dozens of spectators. She had lost 19 pounds
in the 17 hours it took her to make the swim.
“I don’t remember anything that happened on the beach,” Halli
says. “I do remember being home and trying unsuccessfully to eat a
sub. Then I went to sleep for two days.” She was so sore she couldn’t
dress herself for two weeks.
Walking along Freeport Beach today, Halli lists those after her who swam
across Lake Erie. She would rather talk about their accomplishments than
her own, but there’s no ignoring the plaque declaring the area as “ Halli
Reid Park,” or the fact that August 9 was designated “Halli Reid
Day” by the mayor of North East.
Now 39, the gracious local hero lives with her two sons and her mother in
a new home on the same site where the old family cottage once stood. She
is the aquatics director for the North East School District, and she still
monitors the lifeguards and grounds at nearby Freeport Beach.
“I could never live away from Lake Erie,” Halli says. “It’s
second nature to me. It’s my life.” Does she ever think about
the historic swim she made all those years ago?
“Sometimes,” she says, “when I’m driving on I-90
and I look all the way across the lake to Canada, I get a pit in my stomach
and I think, ‘Man, how did I do that’?”