“My grandpa was the oldest person to swim across Lake Huron. He inspired me to take on Lake Ontario”
Seeking a new challenge, Jason Kloss took up his grandfather’s old hobby: open-water swimming. Last week, Kloss raised over $55,000 for CAMH by attempting a 51-kilometre swim across Lake Ontario
On August 11, Jason Kloss, a 35-year-old security professional, attempted to swim across Lake Ontario, a 51-kilometre crossing from Niagara-on-the-Lake to Toronto to raise money for CAMH. It’s a staggering feat, but one that runs in the family—in 1991, his grandfather became the oldest person to swim across Lake Huron. Here, Kloss explains how his grandfather’s hobby became a source of comfort and, since his passing, a way to honour his memory.
Swimming was part of my life from a young age. I swam competitively as a kid, but I quit after I turned 14; I decided I’d rather hang out with friends than spend time at practices. After that, I didn’t swim a single lap for almost ten years.
It wasn’t until I was 23 that I revisited my old hobby. I’d studied to become a police officer only to change course and pursue a career in business instead. My policing courses, the only post-secondary education I had, suddenly counted for nothing, and the list of sales positions I’d been passed over for was growing rapidly. At one point, I took a job where pay was based entirely on commissions—my salary was non-existent. It was demoralizing, and I was frustrated by how powerless I felt.
One day around this time, I was visiting family in Sarnia, and I looked out onto Lake Huron. I found myself thinking about how good it would feel to swim across it. I thought, This is something I can do on my own, and no one can stop me. While it may seem like an odd thought for someone who hadn’t swam in a decade, the idea wasn’t completely random. My grandfather, Dick, was the oldest person to ever swim across Lake Huron. He crossed in 1991, at the age of 50, covering 65 kilometres in 36 hours.
My grandfather was driven. In his late forties, he’d decided that he wanted to get in better shape, so he stopped drinking and smoking and started training as an open-water swimmer. I was just four years old at the time. I marvelled at his ability to set his mind to something and then just do it. I even wrote a speech in grade school about his determination to see it through.
Almost 20 years later, I wanted to tap in to that determination. So I started training in secret at a 20-metre pool near my house. The first time I jumped in, I got so out of breath that I had to stop after one lap. But, the next day, I came back a bit stronger. Eventually, I managed to do 10 laps, then 20.
I waited a few months before telling my grandfather that I was training; I wanted him to know I was serious. Once I felt like I was in good enough shape, I called and said, “Grandpa, I think I want to swim across Lake Huron.” He detected uncertainty in my voice. “What was that?” he said. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m going to swim across Lake Huron.”
After that call, he became my biggest supporter. He bought a wetsuit for me and a little boat so that he could join me on the water. In the spring of 2011, we would drive from London to Wallaceburg every weekend and train in the Snye River for up to 9 hours.
That August, I undertook the gruelling 65-kilometre swim across Lake Huron, the second-largest of the great lakes. Swimming that far is tough: you drain your body of all its energy, your muscles ache after a few hours and you constantly have to fight the urge to quit. I got through it, though. It took me 26 hours, and I raised $22,000 for the Canadian Cancer Society. It felt amazing, but I had no intention of ever trying something like that again.
Then, two years ago, my grandfather passed away from Alzheimer’s complications at age 80. It was a tough pill to swallow. The swim he’d inspired and guided me through had, in many ways, changed my life. I met my wife because of it: she was a news reporter at a radio station in London that had interviewed me. We’d since had a daughter together. I’d started working in security and had recently been promoted, a result of my ability to work hard at achieving a goal. I realized how much of an influence my grandfather was still having on my life, and I wanted to honour him somehow.
Then, barely six months after he passed, a good friend of mine, Mike Kuipers, died by suicide. He was outgoing and fun loving—I’d never suspected that he was dealing with mental illness. In that moment, I recognized how fragile we all are. The pandemic had made it clear to me how many people were struggling, myself included. I’d started swimming again to add some semblance of routine to my days. As I regained my strength, I decided that it was time to take on another one of the Great Lakes. I set my sights on the 51-kilometre swim across Lake Ontario, from Niagara-on-the-Lake to Toronto. The swim would be in honour of my grandfather and my friend, and to raise money for CAMH.
I started a GoFundMe with the goal of raising $50,000 and staged the attempt for August 11. I was nervous, but to make these swims, you have to be so self-assured that it borders on arrogance. If you think too much about what can go wrong, you’ll talk yourself out of it. By the morning of August 11, I was telling myself that there was only one option: you’re getting across.
I jumped into the water flanked by two sailboats carrying my family and friends and two inflatable Zodiac boats to keep me in line. I expected the full swim to take about 18 hours. The first nine went off without a hitch. My parents waved me over every hour for a 20-second food break and passed me snacks on the end of a stick: caffeine, water, the occasional granola bar, but mostly caramel-macchiato energy gels for electrolytes.
Then, in the second half, we hit a powerful current and eight-foot waves. It had been such a calm day until then, but that’s open-water swimming for you: serene one minute and a beast the next. With 13 kilometres left to go, the waves kept pushing me back. It felt like I was treading water in an endless pool. Every time I asked my team how far we were from the shore, they would reply with the same answer: 13 kilometres. I was stuck.
My family and friends saw me struggling and encouraged me to call it a day. I didn’t want to. I kept thinking of all the people watching, of all the support I’d received, and about my grandfather, who never shied away from a challenge. But, after 18 hours in the water, I started falling asleep and sinking. Eventually, I let myself be pulled up onto one of the boats.
I was completely exhausted. By my estimate, I’d burned something like 18,000 calories—as much as I would ingest in a full week. It was hard to eat at first, but I eventually managed to hold down a Gravol, some cold fried chicken and cinnamon-raisin toast. The next day, I felt so disappointed. After all the energy, time and money put into the attempt, it was hard to accept that I hadn’t made it.
It took a few days before I could realize that the swim was successful in other ways. I surpassed my goal by raising over $55,000 for CAMH, and the challenge resonated with people. A mom from Texas told me that my swims have motivated her daughter to do one of her own, to raise money for cancer. The experience also reminded me that sometimes you have to chase things that scare and excite you. Recently, I quit my job and launched a new business called Solosquid, where we run physical security systems for other companies. The swim renewed my motivation, and I’m working harder than ever before.
People are already asking me when my next big swim will be. I’m confident that there will be one, I’m just not sure when. I know Grandpa would support another crack at it. He was tough but also a huge softy—if he had been out on the water last weekend, no matter the result, he would have told me that he was proud of me. There’s no doubt in my mind about that.