Swimmers hope to conquer Juan de Fuca Strait on Sunday

Update

Two Victoria swimmers hoping to conquer Juan de Fuca Strait today in aid of good causes will likely have to postpone their frigid 30-kilometre journey due to high winds.

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“It’s 80 per cent that it will not be a go,” Susan Simmons, a 52-year-old distance swimmer with multiple sclerosis, said Saturday evening. Full story [link]

Original story

Susan Simmons planned to spend Friday night staring out across Juan de Fuca Strait, hoping that some time by the water might shrink the distance between Port Angeles and Victoria.

On Sunday, she and fellow Victorian Jill Yoneda intend to slip into the strait at Dungeness Spit in Washington state, and swim home to Victoria.

The two women are taking on the challenge to raise funds for programs for First Nations children and multiple sclerosis — and to demonstrate that physical handicaps do not define them.

For Simmons, an accomplished open-water swimmer who has lived with MS for more than 20 years, Friday night was about mentally conquering the distance.

“I’m just going to sit down by the water [Friday]. I’m trying to get used to seeing that distance and shortening it in my head,” the 52 year-old said.

The real challenge will come Sunday when the icy water hits her bare skin.

Simmons has taken on much longer challenges in her seven-year open water swimming career, completing swims of up to 70 kilometres. The Juan de Fuca Strait course is between 32 and 36 kilometres, depending on where they land.

But this swim will be cold.

“I’ve been training throughout this year, but there have been years leading up to it becoming more comfortable with the ocean,” she said. “But I’ve never done a cold one.”

Simmons knows the cold water will put a lot of stress on her body, especially as she swims unassisted — wearing only a bathing suit, cap and goggles.

“It means mostly naked, basically,” she said. “Nothing can break the water, I can’t draft [off a boat] or hold onto anything,” she said. “At this point in my life, because of the nature of the swims I’ve been doing, it would be a step backward for me to put a wetsuit on.

“The new challenge is the cold, I just don’t know if 12 hours is going to be a healthy thing to do. I’m about to find out.”

Typically, Simmon’s swims have taken place in water that is 13 C to 14 C. Sunday’s excursion, which is likely to take between 12 and 15 hours, will be done in water that ranges between 10 C and 12 C.

“It’s pretty scary because it’s basically about how long can we hold off the hypothermia,” said Simmons, noting they have two strategies — eat and keep swimming. “If I move, I stay warm.”

One problem: Simmons is prone to motion sickness. “I have a history of feeding the fish with my food, so we’ll see what happens,” she said with a laugh.

In theory, the cold water should be a help as it cools her system down. “When I was rehabilitating myself, because I was quite sick with MS, I went in the pool because it cooled me down when I was exercising,” she said.

That exercise in cool water has made a world of difference in her life, and she’s hoping her example will make a difference for others with disabilities like MS.

“My swims are always about inspiring people with MS to exercise, because it’s one of the best ways to manage the disease,” she said. “I was told not to exercise and I’d have been in a wheelchair today if I hadn’t started.”

Simmons has started a foundation called the MS Wellness Centre and hopes to raise funds to establish a space where people with disabilities can exercise with proper equipment.

She said there has been a void in Victoria since the Multiple Sclerosis Society closed its facility, which offered subsidized physical activity among other programs, last fall.

“They got rid of physio and the gym and it left a few hundred people with nothing,” she said.

For Yoneda, 42, who suffers from left foot drop and degenerative disc disease in her neck, a day in frigid water, complete with fear of great white sharks migrating north, is worth it to raise money for surf camp opportunities for Ahousaht youth in the Ucluelet and Tofino area.

Yoneda said she’s feeling the excitement build toward her swim, which will be propelled almost entirely by her upper body.

“I’m looking forward to being in the water for a full day,” she said. “On land, I feel clumsy and awkward but in the water I feel free and fluid. I’m not hindered by anything. So I do these swims because I love that feeling of being so free.”

Yoneda suffers from a rare condition that led to nine surgeries on her leg. The last was seven weeks ago when the muscle was pulled off her right tibia to create more space for the nearby artery.

“I still need to have the surgery on my left leg, as I have the pain back in that one, too,” she said. “Also on my left leg I have a foot drop, so I’m unable to walk without a brace or an electronic device that moves my foot for me.”

Yoneda is a former member of Canada’s national free diving team, which involves going as deep as humanly possible into the ocean. On Sunday she will wear a wetsuit for buoyancy and pain control and will be accompanied by two motorboats as well as a kayaker and a standup paddleboarder.

The women expect to start their swims between 6 and 8 a.m.

There have been eight known successful crossings of the strait via swimming. The most famous was Toronto’s Marilyn Bell. The 18-year-old was the first Canadian and the youngest to swim the strait. She made the swim on Aug. 23, 1956, in 10 hours and 38 minutes.

aduffy@timescolonist.com

kdedyna@timescolonist.com

For more information

• Susan Simmons' website: withms4ms.com

• Jill Yoneda fundraising page: gofundme.com/reconnect-ahousat-youth-surf-day

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