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Swimming for a cause

A Victoria woman with multiple sclerosis will take to the water July 20 to swim the 34-kilometre length of Lake Cowichan.

A Victoria woman with multiple sclerosis will take to the water July 20 to swim the 34-kilometre length of Lake Cowichan.

Susan Simmons, a 48-year-old provincial government employee, and her friend Alex Cape will swim from Heather Campground to Lakeview Park in the Town of Lake Cowichan. She expects the swim to take 10 to 11 hours.

Simmons said she wants people who have MS to know that exercise and physical activity is not only possible with the disease, but she believes it can slow its progression.

“I want to stay healthy, but it’s also important to me that people with MS see that exercise is something that can help,” she said in an interview.

She said she was first diagnosed 20 years ago. The most severe symptoms she has had so far was going temporarily blind in the left eye, twice.

Other symptoms progressed to the point where she felt severe tingling and numbness in her hands and feet. Over the length of her spine, the tingling felt like a zipper was being fastened.

Chronic fatigue also became an issue.

But about eight years ago, Simmons took up swimming, which she believes is the ideal physical activity for her. Heat was always a trigger for her MS symptoms, but in the water, overheating is not an issue.

Her symptoms have now receded and she credits her swimming exercise regime and her devotion to a healthy diet.

And she has progressed. Initially, 20 laps of the pool would demand a recovery of a two- to three-hour nap. Now she is an accomplished long-distance swimmer.

Two years ago, she and a group of friends swam across the Strait of Georgia. Last year, she swam solo from West Vancouver to Kitsilano Beach in the 10-kilometre Vancouver Open Water Swim Bay Challenge.

She now swims with the Victoria Masters Swim Club. Her workouts and training see Simmons swim as much as 50 kilometres a week. She also does yoga, spends time in the gym and conducts swim workouts for people with MS.

There is one person in her session who could barely move when she showed up a few months ago, Simmons said. Now she can walk in the water and continues to improve.

“The pool for people with MS, especially when you are not mobile, is great,” Simmons said. “For [the woman who can walk in the water], it’s a place where she has freedom.”

Simmons hopes to raise money for MS research through her Lake Cowichan swim. She also plans to swim Thetis Lake in a sponsored fundraiser on July 28.

Simmons said people with MS are stepping up and out to engage in physical activity more and more, from swimming to marathons.

“It’s practically a movement these days,” she said.

For more information, go to msathlete.wordpress.com.

rwatts@timescolonist.com