Tanya Desnoyers Nurses A Dream
Tanya Desnoyers is a clinical nurse in Québec, Canada focused on a career taking care of others. On a rainy, windy July 26th 2003, she found herself on an escort boat with her grandfather Gilles Potvin during the 32 km Traversée internationale du lac St-Jean, watching and doing her part.*
She was 10 years old at the time, behaving and thinking quite precociously. Potvin, an Honor Coach of the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame, was working with a local Roberval radio station reporting on the swim. He recalls his granddaughter’s statement between his radio updates, “Grand-Papa, I am going to be the youngest swimmer to cross that lake and I have a plan.”
Potvin, who had been around dozens of world-class swimmers over the course of his career and had crossed the lake himself, was taken aback. “I asked her, ‘What is your plan?’ She answered, ‘I had a real good season in the pool, I love open water and I can do this. I’ll get back to the specific plan later.‘”
In the pool, Tanya was coached by her mother, Potvin’s daughter Sonya Potvin, who was the head coach of the Chicoutimi Swim Club. Potvin remembers, “Tanya had a very good season in the pool. During the summer months, she loved swimming in open water in all kinds of conditions.”
The Potvin’s are a close-knit family. “From the day she was born, we had a very close relationship as grandparents. As she grew older, it became more and more evident that this young girl was absolutely outstanding in many ways. She was a very bright student at school, a young leader, and taking challenges in her studies. She would later become president of her class and had many other achievements.
The year before the planning to become the youngest to swim the lake, when she was 9 years old, something special happened. On a Friday night, while having supper with her family at our place, I told my wife I would bike to Roberval the next day. Roberval is 112 km from our house. Tanya’s eyes lit up and she said, ‘I’m going to bike with you to Roberval.’ What I knew then is that you don’t tell that girl this is too much, you don’t have a proper bike to do that, it’s going to be very tough, and so on. We all knew no was not an option. We had to figure another strategy.
I told my wife and her parents very discretely – so she would so she would not hear me – ‘OK, let her start with me tomorrow and when you leave with the car for Roberval to bring us back, somewhere you will link with us and she will be able to get her bike on the rack and get in the car with you guys.’
So the next morning, away we went. I told her to go in front of me so I would observe how she was doing. On her small bike, I was astonished to see how well she was performing. Every once in a while, she would look back and ask me, ‘Are you OK, Grand-Papa?’ What, I thought. She’s the one worrying about me?!?
When my wife and her mother caught up with us, we had gone 50 km. Tanya asked me, ‘What are they doing here?’ I simply answered, ‘They are going to Roberval to bring us back home after we finish our ride. Then I asked Tanya, ‘Where are we going to stop in Roberval?’ She said, ‘You know where we start from behind the radio station to do broadcasts on the lake, that would be a good place because there is a nice little beach there and will swim when we get there.’
She went the whole way to Roberval and she swam along shore back and forth, she looked as fresh as a rose. The next day I bought her a real bike.
This story took on particular significance because when the young girl laid out her plan the following year, the Potvin family took it very seriously. Grand-Papa said, “It was well thought, had a clear objective, was progressive, contained a written list of physical and human resources we would need. For a girl that age it was mature, realistic, and most of all when she told me ‘Grand-Papa, I will become the youngest swimmer to cross the lake and I have a plan,’ it was not a spur of the moment reaction. She had been working on that plan for a period of time without us knowing it.“
2003. 10 years old
“As you know I did well in the pool competitions,” Tanya directed her crew. “Next week you are on vacation, we have a boat, you have an extra anchor, cords, one of my friend’s dad is a triathlete and he has a red very visible buoy.
I will swim the lake in 6 stages. On Day One, I will start at 6:00 am, swim 2 hours towards Roberval. At that point, you will drop the buoy in the lake and register the position with your GPS.
The next day we go to the buoy and I start from there at 8:00 and go for 2 hours and so on for the first 5 days, 10:00 am, 12:00 pm, then on the 6th day I complete the swim whatever distance was left.
We have to do it 6 consecutive days. We go out even if it’s very rough out there except if there is a storm warning. I’ll then do my pool season with mom, increasing endurance work, and Grand-Papa will take over for the open water part. I will be eleven by then and I’ll do the evaluation part of the plan with 3 sessions on 3 consecutive days; 4 hours, 4 hours and the rest the third day.“
Potvin remembers, “When she was 12, the plan was to do two marathon swims using the same principle: swim 6 hours and the rest of the course the following day. Then something wonderful happened. To celebrate Robert Cossette 25th time to participate in the Saguenay event, solo swimmers and 4-person relay teams participated.
Tanya was invited to join a relay team or doing the Saguenay course solo. Since her plan was to do 2 swims, 6 hours and the rest the next day she asked to go solo. Nobody was surprised. She felt she could do it and well.
At this time there was a doctor on the team, her uncle Dany Potvin, our son who had been one of the best pool swimmers in the province. We got the green light and the race with 6 solos swimmers including Tanya and 5 relay teams. At one point during the race, her mom and dad were in the boat with me and became a bit worried because the water temperature had dropped to 11.1°C (52°F). I pulled out the thermometer and I put my arm in the water. It was very cold.
Some swimmers were wearing wetsuits, but Tanya did not. A few days before the race, she got a call from a representative of the organization who strongly suggested she should wear a wetsuit. She categorically refused and told him if they, insisted she would not swim.
When we looked at the thermometer, Tanya saw the worried expressions we had on our faces. She got her head up for a few strokes and said, ‘The fresh water feels really good.’ She had no complaints, no worries, and just kept swimming to the finish line.
She picked up the bronze medal with a fantastic 6 hours and 3 minutes time, thus becoming the youngest swimmer to complete the course. That great performance helped build her confidence and motivation – as if she needed more than she already had.
There was a very impressive crowd at the finish including dignitaries, members of parliament, and many friends. It was a completely amazing event in honor of my dear friend Robert and consequently Tanya was also put in the spotlight in a major way. Robert swam in one of the relays along with his daughter Christine.
Tanya received a lot of attention and greetings of all sorts. She took all that with a great deal of humility and perspective. For the rest of the summer, she had a few more long swims working out against the wind, with the wind, from her left, from the right. She was amazing in rough waters and we had plenty of that.
At 13 years old on August 5th 2006, Tanya attacked the original 26 km Vauvert – Roberval course, crossing of the lake with a nasty front wind that sometimes would stop her dead in her tracks. Her mother, father and uncle (doctor) were in my 25-feet cruiser.
The lake was very rough so we decided to abort the swim and start again on a more peaceful day. So I signaled her to stop. Before we had a chance to say anything, Tanya said ‘I know what you are going to tell me, but here is what I think: the lake wants to make it hard for me, that’s his right. I am swimming solo I don’t chase anyone, and nobody is chasing me. This is between the lake and me. If you don’t mind, I would prefer getting out in Roberval, not here.
So her parents agreed even if her mother was very sick to her stomach since the beginning. But as agreed during the whole adventure, my son, her doctor for the challenge, would have the ultimate decision to stop her at any time if he felt the need to do so. He said, ‘I think she is going to Roberval so let’s go.‘
I was in the escort boat with Robert Cossette and he was also happy to let fight for a more valuable challenge than a flat lake.
10 hours 24 minutes 24 seconds later, Tanya arrived in Roberval very strong. She never complained and even let out a few jokes along the way. When looking towards the medical boat where her mom, dad and my son were, around 7 hours into the swim, while taking a feeding from Robert, she said, ‘I love you’. They replied, ‘We love you too.’ Tanya replied, ‘Oh! I was talking to the fish, smiled, and resumed swimming. We all concluded she was feeling pretty good.
During the fourth year of preparing for her dream, Tanya kept very focused on her goal and also with her schooling with nothing less than amazing results.
All the way along, there were very important people involved. Her mom and I shared the preparation: Sonya doing the coaching in the pool and me coaching in open water. Her grandmother worked in the background getting our lunches ready for the many ventures on the lake along with lots of love and support.
Her dad Martin produced a very nice video of her. Her little brother Ian offering flowers. Her aunts, cousins and friends helped with their support and so on. The video produced by her dad is a fantastic testimony and reminder of that wonderful episode of our lives. As we are getting older, it means even more.
Robert Cossette became the oldest to cross lac St-Jean at the age of 74 and Tanya became the youngest at 13. Robert was also in the boat with me taking care of the feeding and following her and supporting her every year.
The International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame acknowledged Tanya’s success and achievement with an official certificate.
When going back in my memories and through her scrapbook, what hits me the most is not only the swimming part of her young life, but the amount of certificates of achievement and excellence for her academic results. It is just impressive.
She graduated with honor from University of Quebec at Chicoutimi as a clinical nurse and has since worked in the largest emergency department in the province of Québec at Maisonneuve Rosemont Hospital in Montreal. She also works in more remote areas during this COVID-19 pandemic.
Tanya wanted to practice several sports to enjoy herself and keep fit. She took taekwondo classes, played organized baseball, cycles, she even goes to work on her bike in winter conditions, trekking, golf, alpine ski, and do crossfit training.
Tanya is now 28 years old as I wrote this on her birthday of January 25th 2021. The song ‘Close to You’ by the Carpenters came to mind, a song I really like and one part of the lyrics really describes my feelings. ‘On the day that you were born, the angels got together and decided to create a dream come true so they sprinkled moon dust in your hair of gold and starlight in your eyes of blue.'”
* 49th Traversée internationale du lac St-Jean from Péribonka to Roberval
- Petar Stoychev, Bulgaria 7h43m15s
- Stéphane Lecat, France 7h48m21s
- Mohamed El Zanaty, Egypt 7h49m13s
- Rafael Perez, Argentina 8h08m47s
- Christian Hansmann, Germany 8h17m11s
- Gabriel Chaillou, Argentina 8h21m59s
- Stéphane Gomez, France 8h22m23s
- Mohamed Hassan, Egypt 8h29m14s
- Celeste Punet, Argentina 8h32m57s [first woman]
- Shelley Clark, Australia 8h43m30s [second woman]
- Teodora Raptis, Macedonia 8h45m52s [third woman]
- Josh Santacaterina, Australia 9h13m27s
- Don Nicholson, Canada 9h25m41s
- Marc-André Leclerc, Canada 9h32m20s
- Melissa Doyle, Canada 9h33m08s [fourth woman]
- Sophie Charbonneau, Canada 9h34m11s [fifth woman]
- Irene Van Der Laan, Netherlands 10h27m49s
DNF: Tomi Stefanovski (Macedonia), Hisham Masri (Syria), Oliver Dessureault (Canada), Edith van Dijk (Netherlands), Attila Manyoki (Hungary), Damian Blaum (Argentina), Mark Saliba (Australia), Minerva Martinez Requenes (Mexico).
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