When Susan Simmons was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), she thought her life would be over — but it was really just the beginning.
Simmons, a James Bay resident, was diagnosed with MS when she was 30 years old. Prior to her diagnosis, whenever she would go into the sun, her arms and legs would tingle and go numb, walking short distances became difficult, she was often fatigued, even though she slept 12 hours a day, and at times, her vision would become blurred.
“I sat at home waiting to die basically. I thought if I don't do something I'll end up in a wheelchair,” Simmons said, admitting she had not exercised in years. “I could see how physically weak I was getting.”
After an emotional conversation with her husband one night, Simmons decided to make a change. She wanted to get back into shape and eat healthy. The first step was getting back into the pool to take up swimming, something she did competitively as a teenager.
After more than two decades of rebuilding her strength and stamina in and outside the pool, Simmons graduated from pool swimming to open water swimming. Not only has it become a passion of hers, but swimming in the open water has become a way for Simmons to keep her symptoms in check.
“I’m drawn to the water. When you’re in the water swimming, there’s a bit of sensory deprivation,” Simmons said.
“You hear yourself breathing, you hear your hands going into the water. You see water and you see sky and that’s it. There’s no talking. You get into a very zen state. You don’t hear traffic or ambulances, it’s a very peaceful place for me.”
In the past, she has competed in marathon swims at Lake Cowichan, the Strait of Georgia and English Bay in distances of 10, 34 and 70 kilometres. Most recently, she attempted a 105 kilometre swim around Lake Cowichan.
Now, Simmons, 51, is taking on a new challenge. Along with Saanich’s Dale Robinson and Gordon Head’s Jill Yoneda, Simmons will be attempting a 50-kilometre open water swim in the Great Bear Sea from Ocean Falls, at the head of Cousins Inlet, to Bella Bella in July.
It’s a passage of open water no one has attempted to swim before and Simmons will be doing it unassisted with just a swim suit, swim cap and goggles, swimming 20 to 25 kilometres a day over a two-day period. There will also be a pilot, guiding a boat beside her to navigate the path and a safety person to provide her with food along the way.
Simmons chose to begin the swim at Ocean Falls because of its history in the swimming community.
“In the 1960s, over half of the Olympic swim squad came from Ocean Falls. They had a 20-yard swimming pool, a fabulous swim team and the coach ended up coaching my coaches when I was a youth swimmer,” Simmons said. “It was a nice connection for me and it’s a way for me to bring back that history. I wanted to honour them.”
She added the swim is also a chance to highlight some of the waterways in British Columbia.
In preparation for the swim, Simmons has been swimming 20 to 50 kilometres a week at Thetis Lake, Lake Cowichan or Caddy Bay.
However, the biggest challenge will be the temperature of the water.
The temperature of Thetis Lake and Lake Cowichan are between 17 to 18 degrees Celsius and 18 to 20 degrees Celsius, but the water in the Great Bear Sea is roughly 12.7 degrees Celsius and will be the coldest water Simmons has ventured into.
“You can really feel it slowing you down, you can really feel the hypothermia. You have to keep moving and knowing that when you get out you’re needing to get warm really quick,” she said.
Another challenge is the wildlife. While Simmons has encountered wildlife before (she swam beside a grey whale in English Bay), she could encounter more transient orcas in the Lama Passage, some of which are more aggressive than other types of whales.
If that happens, Simmons and her fellow swimmers will remove themselves from the water until the orcas have passed.
The swimmers will begin the marathon on July 12 at Ocean Falls. For more information visit greatbearswim.com.