Whatever the distance, Victoria swimmer Susan Simmons is willing to go.
‘Every time I get in the water, I challenge myself,” said Simmons, who plans to attempt two massive swims this summer: a continuous unassisted (no-wet suit) double-crossing of the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Victoria to Port Angeles, and a continuation of last year’s Great Bear swim, from Ocean Falls on B.C.’s Central Coast to Vancouver Island.
Simmons is a traditional open-water marathon swimmer, which means she only wears a traditional swim suit, a swim cap, and goggles while in the water.
“If I wore a wetsuit, that would help me in a lot of ways, like controlling my body temperature or helping my muscles, and I want to do it naturally,” she said.
In earlier years, Simmons swam up until the age of about 15, but didn’t return to the sport until she was 40.
“I was diagnosed with MS, and swimming helps control my symptoms,” Simmons explained, noting the water helps keep her body cool while exercising. “Heat can trigger an MS attack.”
The swimming started off in the pool, but Simmons was looking for more of a challenge.
“I was worried I was going to get bored. I wanted new goals and challenges to keep myself fit,” said Simmons. So she took to the ocean, and has never looked back.
“Being out there in the water is amazing,” said Simmons.
She trains year-round and approximately 30 hours a week, getting in the water usually twice a day, or doing another form of exercise including weightlifting, paddling, or biking. In the winter, Simmons also tries to get in the water for lengthy amounts of time to help better adjust to the temperatures on her marathon swims.
While enduring the long swims, Simmons calms herself into a meditative state and tries to focus on her strokes and breaths.
“I’m aware of the risks, but to me these swims are just about the experience, getting out there and having fun. When you’re out there totally surrounded by blue, the sky above, the water all around you, and you look down below you and all you can see is blue… there’s nothing like it. It’s a surreal feeling,” said Simmons.
If she is successful on her swims this summer, Simmons will make history.
The Great Bear swim takes place on June 6 and 7, starting at Lama Passage, where she will swim approximately 20 kilometres each day until she reaches Koeye River. Along the route, through Heiltsuk territory will include a stop at a camp for First Nations children.
Last year when she tried the Great Bear swim, she was challenged because the area is so heavily populated with humpback whales.
“They hear or see something that’s unfamiliar to them so they come and check it out. One swam up underneath me once, but they are not there to hurt us, they are just curious and it is such an honour that I get to share these bodies of water with them on my swims” said Simmons.
The Juan de Fuca swim will take place in August.
She will have a team of 10 people, including a coastguard following her along both journeys. The team will pass Simmons food and water as she stops every half hour to regain energy.
Those who wish to track the Great Bear swim can visit greatbearswim.com.
The Great Bear swim is raising money for the Heiltsuk youth camps, called the QQS Projects Society, which helps teach Heiltsuk youth about their traditional values, practices, and laws. To donate to the program, visit canadahelps.org.