MS athlete conquers the lake

Inspiring swim: Simmons and friends swim the 34-kilometre length of Cowichan Lake to raise money and provide inspiration

After nearly 12 hours in the water

Susan Simmons said swimming the length of Cowichan Lake in one day was one of the most difficult things she’s ever done.

But talking to her the day after, she leaves the impression it’s also one of the best things she has done.

“It was epic,” the Victoria resident said of her 34-kilometre swim, which took place Saturday. “It was an incredible swim. It was a tough swim, probably the hardest thing I’ve done in my life.”

And it’s not like she’s led a sheltered life either. Simmons, 48, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis close to 20 years ago. She’s been swimming for eight years. Two years ago, she swam with an all-women’s relay team across the Strait of Georgia. Last year, she did a solo 10-kilometre swim in Vancouver Open Water Swim’s Bay Challenge.

But this was her ultimate challenge.

Joined by Alex Cape, a fellow member of the Victoria Masters Swim Club, Simmons hit the water to raise money for the MS Society and inspire people with MS to be active.

The swim started at 6:40 a.m. at Heather Campsite, where the manager had donated campsites to the group.

At the 16.5-kilometre mark — just before Rock Bay at noon — the winds had increased to about 20 knots. Coming from behind and to their left, pushing them toward the shore. The waves were long, rolling and deep, approximately three to five feet.

They crossed to the north shore at 2:25 p.m. Conditions had calmed considerably, and they reached the Education Centre at 5:30 p.m. a small convoy went with them as they swam the final two kilometres to Lakeview Park.

Thirty-four kilometres after leaving Heather Campground, they landed at Lakeview Park at 6:25 p.m.

“We came up to the beach, and all you could hear was people yelling — and it’s very hard to hear from the water, so they must have been really loud,” said Simmons. “They had a red carpet for us, and they brought the bell from the Great Lake Walk for us to ring.”

They had been joined in their journey at various times by paddlers and swimmers Lauren Westmacott, Ray Este, Bjarne Hansen, Barbara Kay-Peck, Pam Loadman, Ian Graeme, Carol Pilon, Dale Robinson, Carol Pal, Shannon Davis, Len Martel, Russ Cape, Janet Neale, Rod Carmichael, Martin Fige, Avila Rhodes and Emma Becky. Becky, 18, was the only one to paddle the entire length of the lake. Loadman also swam.

They had a festive barbecue with food donated by Country Grocer, where they collected donations. Campsites at Lakeview Park were donated by Dalton Smith, who also made it possible for them to have their barbecue at the park.

“I really want to thank people,” said Simmons.

She was particularly happy to share this experience with Cape.

“I couldn’t have done this without Alex,” she said. “She’s my friend for life, and I owe her so much.”

Simmons said her main motivation was to inspire people who have MS.

“I have discovered that for myself, swimming in particular helps me with my MS,” she said. “I started eight years ago, and at that time, I was very unhealthy, very low-energy, a lot of fatigue and a lot of MS symptoms that were getting worse.”

Simmons no longer has those symptoms, like numbness in her arms and legs and problems with balance.

“What it’s meant is I’m able to actively participate in the world,” she said. “In part, I do it for me to keep me healthy, but the other thing is I want people to know there is the possibility (fitness) may work for them too — it’s not going to work for everyone, but for some people, it will.”

She chose Cowichan Lake because she wants to help people in south Vancouver Island.

“It was important for me to do something in my own community, which is the southern part of the island,” she said.

“The funds are going to MS and 50 per cent is going to fitness programs for people in the southern island with MS. I also wanted friends and family to be able to partake.”

Simmons said next year, she will swim with a relay team in the English Channel, and she thinks she will also participate in the World Masters Games.

She has raised about $4,000 so far, and that total is still climbing.

Bells Custom Flooring & Tile in Lake Cowichan is accepting donations on Simmons’ behalf at the shop until July 31. People can also donate online through Simmons’s blog atmsathlete.org.

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