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

Open water swimming from Victoria to Washington State

The swim will take at least 24 hours, 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. Her partner Ray Este follows behind in a kayak. (Submitted)

Just Posted

Supreme Court Judge rules medicinal marijuana company must vacate farm in Central Saanich

Evergreen Medicinal Supply Inc must vacate no later than Aug. 31, 2019

‘Best in the country’: Formerly homeless man praises Victoria’s outreach services

Jay W. was living on the streets of downtown Victoria in 2018

Time-lapse video shows weekend work on McKenzie Interchange project

Construction crews place concrete underpass bridge beams

Years of ‘horrific, violent accidents’ at Thetis Lake prompt plea to public

View Royal fire chief asks for an end to alcohol consumption at busy park

City of Victoria plans workshop to determine fate of Sir John A. Macdonald statue

Conversations will happen as part of a reconciliation dialogue series in May 2020

VIDEO: Man found dead near B.C. teens’ truck could be linked to a double homicide

RCMP said they are looking for Kam McLeod, 19, and Bryer Schmegelsky, 18, of Port Alberni

Latest plan is to fly trapped fish by helicopter over Big Bar slide

Multi-pronged plan set in motion to freesalmon blocked by landslide in the Fraser River

Family of missing B.C. senior with dementia frustrated with situation, heartened by community support

Nine days since Grace was last seen the question remains: ‘How can an 86-year-old just disappear?’

Police ask for help locating missing men last seen in South Surrey

Jeep that Richard Scurr and Ryan Provencher were in has been located unoccupied in Logan Lake: RCMP

Okanagan Air Cadet challenges gender-exclusive haircut policy

Haircut regulation inspires challenge around gender identity

VIDEO: Bystander training gains traction as tool to prevent sexual harassment, violence

Julia Gartley was sexually assaulted after an event, and no one stepped in to help

Sexual assaults, extortion on the rise even as crime rates stay low: Stats Canada

Rates of police-reported sexual assault rose for the fourth year in a row

Vancouver Island teens missing after vehicle found ablaze near Dease Lake, BC

RCMP say a body discovered nearby not one of the missing teens

Most Read