Charla Huber: Strait swimmer is a lesson to us all

We all have those people who appear in our lives and astonish us. For me, one of those people is Susan Simmons.

The first time I met Susan, I was standing on the beach at Thetis Lake, interviewing her about a fundraiser swim she was organizing. Very quickly, the interview turned into a conversation between friends and we were talking about kelp noodles.

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Susan is nothing short of amazing. I feel she’s a local celebrity that people just don’t know about yet.

This past July, Susan swam across the Juan de Fuca Strait. The clock started ticking when she entered the water in the Dungeness Spit in Port Angeles. Ten hours and six minutes later, she landed on the shore of Ogden Point.

Susan thought the swim would take 12 to 15 hours. She finished her swim with the fastest recorded time, beating by 11 minutes the previous record set in the 1950s.

To celebrate she went to the pub, fresh out of the water.

She didn’t plan to break a record.

During our first conversation, Susan was preparing for a 10-kilometre ocean swim known as the Bay Challenge, from West Vancouver to Kitsilano Beach.

Susan’s swimming is always newsworthy, but it’s her backstory that brings her to a whole other level. I’m reminded of Oprah Winfrey, who is amazing on her own, but when you hear she grew up with a dirt floor, it makes you stop and think about choices and possibilities.

Susan is living with multiple sclerosis. She has shared stories with me about how she had gone temporarily blind from the disease at one of her lowest moments. At her diagnosis 12 years ago, her doctor told her to avoid exercise. The reasoning is, when people with MS get hot, they are more likely to get a flare-up or a full-fledged attack.

At that point in her life, Susan describes herself as a “shut-in and someone sitting at home waiting to die.”

Her health was at an all-time low, when she decided she didn’t want to give up. She started working on her diet and decided to take up swimming. This is the genius part. In cold water, she wouldn’t overheat — she could get stronger and healthier without risking a flare-up.

What a lesson to us all. When you have a problem, there’s always an innovative solution waiting to be found.

On Sunday, I watched Susan make her official announcement of her next open-water swim. She will attempt a double crossing of the Juan de Fuca Strait in August 2018. Putting this in perspective, it’s a 70-kilometre swim. She’ll leave Victoria, swim to Port Angeles, hop out, eat a burger and then hop back in the water and swim back to Victoria.

If successful, she will be the first person ever do this.

Susan doesn’t swim only for herself, and her goals aren’t just in the water. She swims for everyone in Victoria with MS.

This year’s fundraising efforts were donated to the MS Warrior Dragon Boat team and to a MS wellness centre project that is still in the works.

One week before Christmas, the MS centre in Victoria was shut down. Susan speaks candidly of people who have lost their supports and community. She knows people who would socialize at the centre, who now don’t leave their homes.

Susan is going to build a centre.

“People are giving money to help find a cure, and that’s sexy. I am raising money to help people living with MS. I want them to have their physio so they can walk,” she explained.

In the meantime, she helps organize monthly meetings where 40 people with MS attend. A speaker comes and people receive therapy and connect with each other.

Even with her success, Susan is often humbled by her disease.

Two weeks ago, she was in a canoe race in Kona, Hawaii, and in the middle of the race, she had a very public MS attack.

“I lost control of my body and it went numb, it felt like a thousand bumblebees were buzzing in my body,” she said. “I wasn’t paralyzed but I couldn’t move a muscle.”

Experiences like this remind Susan that the people with MS she swims for includes herself.

Charla Huber works in communications and Indigenous relations for M’akola Group of Societies.

charla@makola.bc.ca

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