One of the most inspirational stories of the year is Susan Simmons’s marathon 70 kilometre swim on Lake Cowichan in August. Not only did she and friend Alex Cape complete the huge challenge, Simmons discovered in early November that she has been nominated for World Open Water Woman Swimmer of the Year by the World Open Water Swim Association for the feat. Her story is not just about distance and endurance but about inspiring others with her battle against multiple sclerosis.
"It was an amazing experience," Simmons said days after the swim.
"It had a lot of challenges along the way." The pair left the beach just outside of Lake Cowichan at 2:30 p.m. on a Friday afternoon in August, headed for Heather campground, surrounded by an entourage of swimmers and kayakers who took turns serving as support crew for the two women. Simmons and Cape used English Channel marathon rules, meaning they accomplished the feat without wetsuits or swim aids, and have now qualified for the 24- hour club, a group of open-water swimmers who have completed non-stop swims in open bodies of water for a minimum of 24 hours. Their swim time of 32 to 33 hours puts them in an elite group of 117 worldwide. Their distance also puts them among the top flatwater distance swimmers in the world, as less than 10 swimmers on record have swum 70 kilometres or more in a lake unassisted.
"It was a blast," Simmons said in November of the swim, which saw her battle not only the water and fatigue, but hallucinations and hypothermia.
"The last three hours were hallucinations," she said in August.
"I knew it was going to happen, so it was fine, it’s just a little uncomfortable." Because of that, Simmons didn’t want to stop in the last hour to eat or look up.
"I was seeing so many things in front of me that I just thought, ‘I don’t want to see this anymore, I just want to get to the finish’." "I fell asleep twice, too, which I didn’t think you could do while you were swimming," Simmons recalls.
"That kind of scared me." She made sure her crew knew what was going on, and she persevered under their watchful eyes. When the pair finally reached the end of their journey, they were greeted by a crowd, Simmons said, as well as a doctor and ambulance technician who treated them for mild hypothermia. It was all worth it, Simmons said.
"I learned so much while I was doing this," she said. A driving force behind the challenge for Simmons was to get word out about the importance of exercise for people who have multiple sclerosis. Simmons, 49, was diagnosed with MS about 20 years ago, and was told at that time not to exercise at all. That made her increasingly unhealthy, she said, so about nine years ago she began to swim. It has made a huge difference in her life. Simmons said her fight against MS is part of the reason for the nomination.
"It’s nice because this takes it from the Island to the international community," she said.
"So it’s bringing awareness on that level." Part of what made the experience so worthwhile, Simmons said, is the incredible team of community volunteers who helped out and accomplished their own goals. Some paced the swimmers in kayaks, while others joined the two women for a portion of the journey. This isn’t the end for Simmons. She and Cape have started planning a 105 kilometre Cowichan Lake swim for next July-August.
"We’re expecting it to take about 50 hours," she said of what she describes as a "full tour of the lake."