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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Multiple Sclerosis Is No Barrier To A Brave New World

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

49-year-old Susan Simmons was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis nearly 20 years ago.

She took to swimming nine years ago to help manage the disease. It has been a long journey, but an extraordinarily interesting one.

When she first started swimming, 20 laps of the pool led to 2- to 3-hour naps. But she continued to build herself up and kept on swimming.

Three years ago, she swam with an all-women's relay team across the Strait of Georgia. Two years ago, she swam 10 km solo from West Vancouver to Kitsilano Beach in the Vancouver Open Water Swimming Association's Bay Challenge. Last year, she swam 34 km across Cowichan Lake and also participated in an English Channel relay late July.

She continues to escalate her swims and expand her dreams to unprecedented levels.

On August 22nd, Simmons is pioneering a marathon swim together with her swimming partner, Alex Cape. They will set off on a two-way crossing of 70 km across Cowichan Lake in British Columbia, Canada.

The Canadian pair will start at 2 pm and plan to complete the double crossing in less than 30 hours.

Simmons and Cape will swim unassisted from Lakeview Park to Heather Campground. They plan to turn around, without stopping, and swim back, probably becoming members of the 24-hour Club by the end of the swim. There are fewer than 10 swimmers on record who have swum a distance greater than 70 km in a lake unassisted.

"A lot of preparation has gone into the swim," says Simmons.

"It's a significant undertaking. There are over 65 volunteers, a fleet of motorized boats, and a flotilla of kayaks and canoes. Len Martel, our logistic guru, has been organizing escorts and safety crew into manageable shifts in order to keep things as safe as possible."

Cape and Simmons started focusing on long distance training back in October 2013 under the direction of their coach Danielle Brault with the Victoria Masters Swim Club. The two have swum between 1,500 and 2,000 km as part of their preparation including long training swims around Thetis Lake.

Eating will be key,” predicts Simmons. “We need to be able to sustain our energy levels to keep us moving and warm. We will be stopping to fuel-up every 30 minutes throughout the swim – that’s about 50 snacks. It’s been a challenge finding the right food and the right portions. After a certain point it’s easy to not want to eat or worse, get sick."

Their 70 km swim route will take them along the south shore of Cowichan Lake. The pair will be joined by Lauren Westmacott and Carol Pal who also has MS. The two support swimmers will swim with them for the first 10 km, rest overnight, and then join them on their way back for the last 10 km.

Several members of the Victoria Masters Swim Club who will also jump in to the lake with the women throughout the swim. "Heading out for a workout in the lake with a group of swimmers makes me so happy," says Cape. "I love that we are all together, enjoying this beautiful lake. It's such a refreshing change from the pool."

The rest of the night will be quiet adventure of endurance with just the two of them swimming down the lake escorted by their kayakers and safety boat throughout the night. “I’m excited and a bit afraid at the same time,” says Simmons. “I’m not afraid to swim in the dark, and I trust my crew to guide me. I am, however, concerned about the cold. The lake gets colder as you swim toward Heather, and the air will get colder as darkness sets in. I am worried the cold will set-in. We have no way to warm ourselves until the sun is out the next day.”

Cape and Simmons plan to reach the halfway mark at Heather Campground by 3 am. At that point, they will turn around without touching the bottom or exiting the lake, and start making their way back. Simmons’ English Channel relay teammates Jim Close and Bill Burton will join them for a few kilometers, supporting them during the coldest part of the swim.

The two women will be on their own again for the next 20 kilometers as they head back toward Gordon Bay and, eventually, Lakeview Park. Cape has been studying the map, breaking it down into sections, to visualize her progress along the lake. "I am already thinking ahead to this part of the swim. I have been telling myself that it will feel really reassuring to be heading back towards the finish line. We will recognize points, and will hopefully feel good to be on the home stretch."

Members of the local swim and triathlon communities will join them for the last 10, 5, and 2 km. A dozen or more swimmers will swim the last 2 kilometers with the women, including members of Victoria’s Special Olympic Swim team, a club Simmons helps coach.

34-year-old Cape has been swimming since 1991 where she started as a newbie. She played water polo while studying at university, which is where she was first introduced to masters swimming. In her travels with work in the military, Cape has swum in pools all over Canada over the past two decades. “Swimming is often the most normalizing part of my day, as it offers a whole-body work out in a quiet and calming environment.”

Both Cape and Simmons have created a large groundswell of support that has followed them to the water. During their training sessions on Thetis Lake, swimmers often jump in and join them for a loop, and an ever-growing list of paddlers have been offering to join in as supporters. The number of friends who want to jump in the water and swim alongside them at various points continues to grow.

To learn more, visit here and here.

Copyright © 2014 by World Open Water Swimming Association

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