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

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.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

 

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)

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

Cory Mills, Eric Blackmore and A.J. Jensen, all 20, drown in the Sooke River in February 2020. (Contributed photos)
Coroner’s report confirms cause of death of three men at Sooke River in 2020

Cory Mills, Eric Blackmore and A.J. Jensen drown while ‘puddle-jumping’ in pickup truck

The Pacheedaht First Nation is planning a $1-million expansion to its campground in Port Renfrew. (Pixabay photo)
Expanded camping announced for Pacheedaht Campground

$1-million project is part of the B.C. Rural Economic Recovery program

Don Devenney is a Goldstream Gazette 2021 Local Hero as Community Builder of the year. (Don Denton/Black Press Media)
West Shore volunteer’s efforts an exercise in adventurous pursuits

Don Devenney is the 2021 recipient of the Community Builder Award

Sergeant Francis Dion with the box containing HMCS Calgary’s new secret mascot costume. (HMCSNCSMCalgary/Facebook)
A wind warning is in effect for Greater Victoria Thursday afternoon. (Black Press Media file photo)
Strong winds predicted for Greater Victoria

Environment Canada issues warning for Thursday afternoon

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C.’s COVID-19 situation at the B.C. legislature. (B.C. government)
B.C. reports 10 additional deaths, 395 new COVID-19 cases

The majority of new coronavirus infections were in the Fraser Health region

Anyone with information on any of these individuals is asked to call 1-800-222-TIPS (8477) or visit the website victoriacrimestoppers.ca for more information.
Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers wanted list for the week of Feb. 23

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers is seeking the public’s help in locating the… Continue reading

(Black Press Media File Photo)
POLL: Are you struggling with Greater Victoria’s cost of housing?

While Victoria remains one of the most expensive cities in the country… Continue reading

Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools is preparing a rapid response team proposal for submission to the B.C. Ministry of Education. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)
Nanaimo-Ladysmith school district chosen as COVID-19 rapid response team

Team to consist of SD68 and Island Health staff, according to B.C. Ministry of Education

A new survey has found that virtual visits are British Columbian’s preferred way to see the doctor amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Unsplash)
Majority of British Columbians now prefer routine virtual doctor’s visits: study

More than 82% feel virtual health options reduce wait times, 64% think they lead to better health

Captain and Maria, a pair of big and affectionate akbash dogs, must be adopted together because they are so closely bonded. (SPCA image)
Shuswap SPCA seeks forever home for inseparable Akbash dogs

A fundraiser to help medical expenses for Captain and Maria earned over 10 times its goal

The missing camper heard a GSAR helicopter, and ran from his tree well waving his arms. File photo
Man trapped on Manning mountain did nearly everything right to survive: SAR

The winter experienced camper was overwhelmed by snow conditions

Castlegar doctor Megan Taylor contracted COVID-19 in November. This photo was taken before the pandemic. Photo: Submitted
Kootenay doctor shares experience contracting COVID-19

Castlegar doctor shares her COVID experience

Ashley Paxman, 29, is in the ICU after being struck by a vehicle along Highway 97 Feb. 18, 2021. She remains in critical condition. (GoFundMe)
Okanagan woman in ICU with broken bones in face after being struck by car

She remains in serious condition following Feb. 18 incident

Most Read