Swimmer with MS crosses Lake Cowichan

When she neared the end of a 12-hour swim across Lake Cowichan, Susan Simmons says she was stunned and moved to see the shoreline rimmed with people from the town of Lake Cowichan.

The supporters came out Saturday to cheer on the Victoria woman who began distance swimming when multiple sclerosis threatened her ability to stay active.

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“Open-water swimming is usually a very isolated experience,” Simmons said Monday.

“It’s not typical to have so many people supporting you. We came out of the water exhausted, and everybody was cheering and you could just feel the warmth.”

Simmons, a 48-year-old provincial government employee, was diagnosed with MS about 20 years ago. Chronic fatigue eventually became an issue, so Simmons turned to swimming.

It turned out to the ideal physical activity because heat was always a trigger for her MS symptoms. But in water, overheating is not an issue.

She now swims and trains with the Victoria Masters Swim Club and conducts swim workouts for people who also have MS.

She has completed a number of open-water swims, including the Georgia Strait and the 10-kilometre Vancouver Open Water Swim Bay Challenge from West Vancouver to Kitsilano.

But the 34-kilometre Lake Cowichan swim is her longest. She was accompanied at various times by kayakers, a safety boat and various other distance swimmers.

Saturday’s swim was a bit of an ordeal, too, with wind sending one- to two-metre waves for the first 20 or so kilometres.

“It’s hard to swim in water like that,” Simmons said. “I remember thinking, ‘If we have to do this for another 12 kilometres, we will never make it.’ ”

But then she and her companions managed to make it past a narrow portion of the lake and the water became calmer and warmer.

“Once we crossed through the narrows, we had only 10 kilometres to go, and 10 kilometres is just a workout for us.”

Simmons and fellow open-water swimmers are now hoping to have Cowichan Lake sanctioned internationally as an open-water event.

She and four companions are hoping to swim the English Channel in a relay event next year.

But for now, one of the best rewards she has received for completing the Lake Cowichan swim is news from physiotherapists. They say people with MS are asking about swimming regimes after reading about Simmons in a Times Colonist story July 9.

“I was so touched by that,” she said. “My message has always been: If you can be fit, you are going to be a lot happier.”


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