Susan Simmons warms up following her swim through the Great Bear Rainforest. (Submitted)

VIDEO: Open water swimming from B.C. to Washington in 24 hours

The swim will take a full day, meaning Susan Simmons will be swimming in the black of night

Special to Black Press Media

It’s nighttime at Cowichan Lake and Susan Simmons is about to enter the dark, cold water, aiming to conquer her fear about swimming in blackness — that feeling of disorientation and nausea when the black water and sky meld into one.

On shore stands her partner, Ray Este, holding a flashlight, trying to figure out the best way to illuminate Susan’s way, watching her as she swims deeper into the night.

There’s a steadfast determination to this, for Ray and Susan know why they’re here.

In just a few short weeks Susan — ultramarathon swimmer, coach, paddler and MS athlete — will be attempting to swim from Victoria to Port Angeles and back again.

The swim will take at least 24 hours, which means Simmons will at some point be between the U.S. and Canada, swimming in the black of night, in the wild open waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

RELATED: B.C. woman plans two massive swims this summer

“You can get pretty disoriented in the water and I tend to get really sick at night,” Simmons says later, discussing her training. “My stomach gets really upset because I lose my sense of where I am in the water.“

You have to be tough-minded to be an ultramarathon swimmer, and for Simmons, who battles MS, the war is both physical and psychological.

The training schedule is grueling: Weights twice a week, spin cycle twice a week, lake swims, pool swims, ocean swims — a minimum of 15 hours of swimming alone per week.

For Simmons, part of ultramarathon swimming is simply problem solving. How do you swim in pitch blackness? How do you deal with cold water? How do you deal with the overwhelming distance? How do you deal with the urge to quit?

“I work on psychological stuff throughout the year,” Simmons says. “I give myself these insane challenges during workouts, where I want to quit, but I know if I go 10 minutes more, I’ll get past it.”

Simmons is a traditional swimmer, which means she wears nothing but a swimsuit, swim cap and goggles, and accepts no aid other than nourishment from her support crew. Last year, she became the 7th swimmer to have ever crossed the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Port Angeles to Victoria without assistance of a wetsuit. Around Aug. 1, depending on the weather, she plans to be the first person to ever cross the strait twice.

She understands cold water. In fact, earlier this year she spent six hours swimming in 10C water as part of an annual swim through the Great Bear Rainforest. The truth is, it is never easy. It is just one more barrier to push past.

“When I first enter the water, I’m like everybody else and it hurts,” Simmons says. “But I know that after 20 minutes, I’ll feel warm.”

Part of Simmons’ strength comes from community. She’s a beloved coach to Special Olympic athletes, who she trains after her own training is done. And she has a three-year plan to have a team swim across the English Channel.

As for other psychological factors, she knows that bumping into even a piece of seaweed in the dark is potentially terrifying. So, how about whales or jellyfish or seals and other creatures?

A Grade 3 class at Sangster Elementary School took on a research project, spending months looking into hazards.

Transient killer whales? “They feed along the shore at dawn or dusk. I won’t be there then.”

Lion’s Mane Jellyfish? “They’re not sitting at the surface in cold water.”

And so it goes, one problem after another, until we get to two issues that are so intertwined that it would be a disservice to separate them. It’s a combination of MS and willpower.

READ MORE: Victoria woman honoured as one of world’s best

About 25 years ago Simmons was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), an unpredictable and disabling disease, often characterised by fatigue, motor weakness, spasticity, and poor balance.

“When I was first diagnosed, I was told don’t exercise. I basically was sent home to die,” Simmons says. “Just disappear. We don’t want to see you cry. Go be sick.”

Simmons spent the first 10 years basically hiding from the disease, working at home and not exercising. She felt terrible.

Then she decided to do two things: Start swimming (cold water helps with her MS symptoms) and become a vegan.

“You need to be physically healthy,” Simmons says. “You need to have a good diet and nutrition plan and you need to take care of your spiritual side. That’s not what we’re told.”

Simmons started swimming, slowly building up her endurance to where she is today — able to swim vast distances through cold oceans and frigid lakes, overcoming one problem after another.

“The other thing I do,” Simmons says, considering her words carefully before continuing. “I think it’s important to build your, um, willpower muscle.

“I challenge myself all the time. There’s always something that’s just a bit further than I might want to go and I make myself do it.”

As for night-time swims? Simmons and her husband figured out that the best place to shine a light is just on her back, near her shoulder. She’s still practising night swims, but now they’re in the ocean, often off Oak Bay near Victoria.

“It’s actually quite beautiful and peaceful,” Simmons says. “I just follow my arms through the water.”

Susan Simmons has three potential ‘windows’ to swim from Victoria to Port Angeles and back; Aug. 1, 2; Aug. 18 ,19 and Sept. 1.

By Paul Bucci

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

 

Susan Simmons trains in preparation for an attempt to swim from Victoria to Port Angeles and back again. (Submitted)

Just Posted

COLUMN: Art Matters by Sarah Zimmerman

This Christmas, shop for local gifts

City of Terrace says it’s ready to tackle winter weather

A new snow plow was added to the city’s snow removal fleet this year

CN Rail workers strike in Terrace as part of national movement

Employees say long, unpredictable hours are a public safety concern

Skeena Voices | The top wheeler

Skater Chris Thomas was chosen as Team Canada’s head coach for the upcoming Roller Derby World Cup

Fashion Fridays: Holiday outfits on a budget

Kim XO, helps to keep you looking good on Fashion Fridays on the Black Press Media Network

NHL honours B.C. athlete and grandmother’s ‘fight’ against cancer

Shea Theodore’s grandmother Kay Darlington dropped the puck at a special ‘Hockey Fights Cancer’ game

University of Victoria threatens any athletes who speak about rowing coach probe

Barney Williams has been accused of harassment and abuse

B.C.’s largest catholic archdiocese names 9 clergymen in sex abuse report; probes ongoing

Vancouver Archdioces presides over 443,000 parishoners in B.C.

Smudging in B.C. classroom did not affect Christian family’s faith, says school district lawyer

Lawyers make closing arguments in a Port Alberni case about the Indigenous cultural practice

Canadian Forces member charged with possessing magic mushrooms in Comox

Master Cpl. Joshua Alexander, with the 407 Maritime Patrol Squadron, facing two drug related charges

Most B.C. residents, including those hit by 2018 storms, not prepared for outages: report

Create an emergency kit, BC Hydro says, and report all outages or downed lines

Study finds microplastics in all remote Arctic beluga whales tested

Lead author Rhiannon Moore says she wasn’t expecting to see so many microplastics so far north

Services needed in B.C. for early-onset Alzheimer’s disease patients: doctor, advocates

More patients are being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at an earlier age

Most Read