There were times Susan Simmons dragged herself to the pool knowing if she didn’t go, life would only get worse.
Now, the accomplished marathon swimmer who routinely swam 20 to 40 kilometres a week is a housebound fish out of water, trying to find ways to keep active without a pool to swim in.
“When Thetis warms up it’s going to be a madhouse, and I don’t think I’ll be able to swim there either,” said Simmons, who took up swimming as a way to combat the deteriorating health effects of multiple sclerosis.
As the story goes, more than a decade ago Simmons had been diagnosed with MS and she was unfit, on the verge of going blind and soon to be wheelchair-bound. She was even told not to exercise as the generated heat is known to trigger MS symptoms.
But the cooler temperatures of pool water negated those symptoms and one thing led to another as Simmons found a return to a vibrant and healthy life. She transitioned into an open-water dynamo. Simmons conquered the 34 km length of Cowichan Lake in 2013 and then did a Cowichan Lake double in 2014 – a 32-hour, 79-kilometre two-way crossing of the lake. In 2017, Simmons became the eighth person to swim the Juan de Fuca Strait without a wetsuit, a la Marilyn Bell, walking out at Ogden Point (only a few more have done it even with a wetsuit) and into the cafe for a beer.
Through it all, Simmons became involved as a swim coach for the local Special Olympics chapter, the Spirit Orcas, and also co-ordinated getting many more people with MS into the pool.
“I get really worried because I have MS, and asthma, I said to [my partner], if I get ‘it’ I’m probably dead,” Simmons said. “I know I need to remain physical to be healthy and I can see when I’m not, the deterioration goes quickly.”
Simmons actually won a bike at the Market on Yates last year and has been on it a lot recently as she and her partner have made a pact to travel by their own power, at a social distance, instead of driving.
“I don’t know how [people] can run,” said the athlete who clocks over 1,000 km a year in the pool.
And yet it’s not just Simmons, but a whole community of locals that relied on the pool to maintain their physical and social livelihood who are now trying to make do in other ways.
The Special Olympics organization has suspended all programs not just in Canada but globally, said Andrea Boyes, spokesperson for the local Special Olympics chapter.
“All over the world, Special Olympics Global are posting resources online for athletes right now,” Boyes said.
Simmons, of course, had a couple of open-water swimming goals to accomplish this year. One was to do a leg of the Great Bear Sea that she’s been swimming in for years, and another was to swim into Victoria from Race Rocks.
“Part of Special Olympics is not just about getting fit and doing sport but also having a family and people who you can relate to who treat you like equals,” Simmons said. “It will take a toll on the athletes over time. It’s important to have goals to work towards.”