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Swimming to freedom from multiple sclerosis

Athlete with MS helps others regain mobility through exercise in the water
Susan Simmons

On land, Susan Leff is confined to a motorized wheelchair, but in the water she finds freedom – freedom to walk and kick, and move her body in the ways she did before multiple sclerosis invaded her life.

Leff is part of a small, unofficial club which meets at the Crystal Pool on Sunday mornings to use swimming as a means to combat the symptoms of MS, under the guidance of Susan Simmons, who has MS herself.

Leff was diagnosed with MS in 1998, which forced her to use a walker and then a wheelchair. She was also struck by a car in 2008 which cemented her dependance on the motorized chair. In the pool, Simmons guides Leff as she backstrokes, followed by a round of leg kicks with a swim fin.

“I used to swim lakes, swimming was my thing, but MS took my leg power away, but now I’m getting it back,” Leff says. “I’ve been doing unbelievable stuff in the pool. I’ve been doing amazingly well under (Simmons’s) guidance.”

Using exercise and swimming to halt or reverse symptoms such as fatigue and loss of motor skills is encouraged by Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada, but Simmons has taken it to a different level.

Last July she and friend Alex Cape swam the length of Lake Cowichan, 34km over more than 10 hours. This year they’re planning two lengths of the lake, 70km, a feat that will be at least 24 hours in the water, non- stop.

“My coach said I needed to practice my flip turns, so I’m going to go down to one end, and go back,” Simmons said laughing. “If  we take the long route it will be 70, if we take the short route it will be 65. It will be a 24-hour at least swim, so we’ll be swimming in the dark – non-stop Lake Cowichan twice.”

Simmons, 49, was diagnosed with MS in her 20s, and found herself struggling with weight, blindness and fatigue; a life of misery. She returned to the water, a decision that likely saved her life, and led her into a life of inspiring others through distance swimming.

“I started swimming, and it led to me to wanting to have more people with MS swim because it seemed to help with a lot of my symptoms,” Simmons says. “It kind of makes sense though. If you want to stay healthy you have to remain active, so people with MS are no different than anyone else. We need to stay really super-active to be healthy.”

Carol Pal also lives with MS and swears by a vigorous exercise routine. Now a distance swimmer, a paddler in Dragon boats and outrigger canoes, at one point in her life she could barely walk for five minutes. Last year she swam three kilometres at Thetis Lake multiple sclerosis swim.

“There was a point in time where I literally slept 18 hours per day. I had no energy to walk or carry on through my daily activities. I got off the medications and decided to deal with MS in a different way, through diet and exercise,” Pal said. “When I started swimming last year with Susan, 200m was a big deal. I ended up doing a 3K in July.”

As members of the MS swim group improve their mobility and endurance, Simmons and Cape, a medic in the Canadian Forces, are logging long hours in the pool to prepare for the 70km ultra-marathon in Lake Cowichan on Aug. 22. Cape admits she didn’t contemplate the distance after agreeing to last year’s distance swim.

“I said ‘yes’ without really thinking about what I committed to. We swam it, we kicked butt and it was a really amazing day,” Cape said. “After that Susan said ‘I’ve got a plan for next year. We’re doing 70. Are you in?’ I basically said ‘yes, what the heck.’ Now I’m starting to think what have I done? But yep, we’re doing it.”

They don’t use wetsuits and will face chilly water during the night, and hours of heavy chop in the morning. Last year, scores of volunteers from Victoria and Lake Cowichan piloted boats to follow Simmons and Cape, and to ferry swimmers who joined at points along the route.

Len Martel, a Victoria Masters swimmer, led the logistics, and volunteered again this year.

“There’s a new level of complexity to it. Not only are they swimming there and back, they’ll be swimming from one end to the other in the dark, they’ll be going overnight,” he said. “So we’ll have to have lights and safety for them in the wee hours of the morning.

“There’s also lot of spots where people are getting in and out (of the lake), so it’s a lot of work to logistically organize that.”

If Lake Cowichan weren’t enough, Simmons plans to swim the English Channel in July as part of a relay team, and then paddle in Hawaii’s Na Pali Challenge outrigger canoe race. “Then I come back for two weeks to recover, then I’m in Lake Cowichan for the 70K.”

For more on Simmons, see

--with reporting from Travis Paterson