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Vancouver Island woman with Multiple Sclerosis to swim 70km non-stop

VICTORIA — Island woman with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Susan Simmons, along with her friend, Alex Cape, will attempt a 70 kilometer swim at Cowichan Lake, British Columbia. Most swims of this distance are staged over a period of days; however, Simmons and Cape have opted to swim following traditional marathon swim rules. Between August 22nd and 23rd the two will swim unassisted (no wetsuit or swim aids) from Lakeview Park to Heather Campground, and then will turn around (without stopping) and swim back.

The swim is expected to take between 24 and 28 hours to complete. Should the two succeed, they will become members of the 24-hour club; a group of open water swimmers who have completed a non-stop swim in an open body of water (e.g., ocean, lake, river, bay) for a minimum of 24 hours. There are currently 117 members world-wide with some of the swims dating back to the 1930s.

The swim will also allow the two to count themselves amongst the top flat water distance swimmers in the world. There are less than 10 swimmers on record who have swum a distance of 70 km or greater in a lake unassisted, and only one Canadian; Vicki Keith swam 103 km in a two-way crossing of Lake Ontario in 1987.

Cape and Simmons started focussing on long distance training back in October 2013 under the direction of their coach Danielle Brault with the Victoria Masters Swim Club. The two are expected to swim between 1,500 and 2,000 km as part of their preparation; a distance similar to the distance from Victoria to Winnipeg. The two can be regularly seen swimming laps around Thetis Lake.

“It’s the ideal place to train,” says Simmons. “One loop around the lake from the main beach, behind the second island, and back is 1.5 km and takes approximately 25 minutes. We stop briefly after each loop to fuel-up. This is similar our plan for Cowichan Lake, where we will pause and tread water every 30 minutes while we feed, and then carry-on.”

Escorted by a safety crew and escort kayakers, the pair will leave Lakeview Park at 2pm on Friday. Carol Pal, a friend of Simmons who also has MS, will swim with them for the first 10 km, rest overnight, and then join them on their way back for the last 10 km.

Once the swimmers reach Gordon Bay at approximately 6:30pm they will be joined by several members of the Victoria Masters Swim Club who will remain with them for the next 10km. Cape and Simmons are both open water advocates and have been challenging teammates and friends to jump in the water with them. "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, 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 west, 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.”

If all goes well Cape and Simmons will reach the half way mark at Heather Campground by 3:00 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 team mates Jim Close and Bill Burton, both proficient cold water swimmers, 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 plus 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 swim and triathlon communities will join them for the last 10, 5, and 2 km. A dozen or more will swim the last 2 kilometers with the women, including members of Victoria’s Special Olympic Swim team, a club Simmons helps coach.

Simmons, 49, was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis close to 20 years ago. She has been swimming for the past 8 to help manage the disease. When she first started swimming, 20 laps of the pool would lead to 2 to 3 hour naps. Three years ago she swam with an all-women's relay team across the Strait of Georgia, and two years ago swam solo from West Vancouver to Kitsilano Beach (10 kilometers) in the Vancouver Open Water Swim's Bay Challenge. Last year she swam one length of Cowichan Lake and is scheduled to swim the English Channel on a relay late July.

Cape, 34, has been swimming since 1991 where she started as a slow and awkward BC Summer Swimmer. She played water polo while studying at UVic, 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, and has hardly spent any time away from the water in more than two decades. For Cape “swimming is often the most normalizing part of my day, as it offers a whole-body work out in a quiet and calming environment.” Cape joined Simmons for the Lake Cowichan swim in 2013.

Both Cape and Simmons are grateful for the tremendous amount of support they have received from their families, friends, teammates, co-workers, and the Cowichan Lake community. During their training sessions at Thetis Lake, fellow swimmers often jump in and join them for a loop, and an ever-growing list of paddlers have offered to join in as supporters. The list of friends wanting to jump in the water and swim along-side them at various points continues to grow. Family and friends will be hosting a get-together for the swimmers and their crew at the finish line. The Town of Lake Cowichan is graciously allowing the pair to finish and celebrate at the Municipal Beach.

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