Ask any swimmer what happens once they’ve found the groove a few laps into their swim, and they’ll tell you, your mind finds a rhythm, too.
Ask Susan Simmons about where her mind goes when she’s in a long-distance open-water swim, and maybe it’s no surprise that her answer isn’t far from what swimmers in the community pool might tell you.
“When you’re in the water, you don’t hear traffic,” she says. “It becomes very meditative, but you also think about a million things.”
When you’re swimming 33 kilometres across Juan de Fuca Strait, a million might not be an exaggeration.
Simmons plans to swim the channel between Vancouver Island and Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula in early August. She’ll reach the southern shore, then dive back in and swim home.
Going one way has been done. She did it herself last summer, in record time.
Going there and back?
Simmons has never heard of anyone doing that.
She’s got another target in mind before she goes for the Juan de Fuca double: Another long leg on the multi-year project she started in the old logging community of Ocean Falls, west of Bella Coola, and will finish, she hopes, on the northeast coast of Vancouver Island.
The swim started two years ago. Last summer she got about 30 km short of Namu, a Heiltsuk village about 100 km south of Bella Coola.
Next weekend, she’ll pick up her swim on the shore at Lama Passage and go to Namu and then, she hopes, onward to either Koeye River or Hecate Island.
The remarkable thing about Simmons isn’t just that she’s adept at swimming all day, or that she’s doing the swim in a regular swimsuit — no wetsuit. (“It’s 14 to 18 degrees in the water there, because of runoff from rivers,” she notes.)
It’s also that she’s doing all this while dealing with the curveballs that living with multiple sclerosis can throw at you.
When she received the diagnosis at age 30, she was told the best way to handle her condition was to not change her lifestyle, to avoid stress.
But for a decade, she struggled endlessly with illness.
“I’m going to be in a wheelchair,” she thought to herself as she hit her 40s. “I knew I had to do something.”
Finding a way to get regular exercise was a solution, she figured.
Upward of 80 per cent of MS sufferers are heat-sensitive. That means she had to start exercising — but somehow not get hot.
Swimming in cool water was the obvious solution. She’d been a competitive swimmer in her youth, but hadn’t really swum much since her teens.
She started with 20 lengths a day. After a while, she joined a swim team and found a great coach.
At 41, a year into her new swimming life, it was time to take on a real challenge. And so “can I do the distance” became her motto.
By then, she had moved to Victoria from the Lower Mainland. She learned of the Thetis Lake Swim for MS. She swam that.
“I ran out of lake,” she says with some modesty.
Then she signed up for the Bay Challenge, a nearly 10 km swim across English Bay, from Sandy Cove in West Vancouver to Kitsilano Beach in Vancouver.
"I won. I was thrilled,” she says.
Then she really started to think big. The English Channel is held up by open water swimmers as the pinnacle distance; it’s about 35 km from the cliffs of Dover to Cap Gris Nez in France.
For Simmons, it was a simple question: “Can I do the distance?”
Cowichan Lake, she realized, is nearly as long as the Channel swim.
So she swam it.
“It’s about possibility,” she says, firmly. “It’s using curiosity to drive me.”
And now she’s swimming B.C.’s coastline.
Her motivation remains personal. First, there’s showing others living with MS: “You can stay fit. You can live a happy, healthy, active life.”
And she feels there’s also an environmental connection.
“The healthier the environment, the healthier we are,” she says. “We are so connected to the environment.”
One of the things she learned as she swam south from Ocean Falls, through what many are now identifying as the Great Bear Sea, was that researchers believe toxins are suppressing the immune systems of orcas on the B.C. coast.
That struck close to home.
“MS is an auto-immune disorder,” she points out.
And so, she swims, for her fellow MS patients, and for the orcas.