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Susan Simmons will tackle 50-kilometre Powell Lake this August

“I have managed to find a way to live with the disease up to this point where I’m able to remain active in the community in a way that’s meaningful to me.”

Ultra-marathon swimmer Susan Simmons works to raise awareness about the benefits of exercise and nutrition for those living with Multiple Sclerosis (MS).

After meeting local resident Heather Armstrong at an MS conference where Simmons spoke, they reconnected and talked about swimming in the qathet region.

“I was looking to swim from Comox to Powell,” said Simmons, who is from Victoria. “And Heather said, ‘Well, why don’t you swim Powell Lake?’”

Simmons loved the idea. She had been doing a lot of ocean swims over several years and wanted to get back into a lake swim. And, to the best of her knowledge, no one had swum the 50 kilometre length of Powell Lake before.

Since then, Simmons has been visiting the region, swimming with the Powtown Popsicles, getting to know them and Powell Lake.

Setting aside two possible windows, Simmons will attempt to swim the lake from August 4 to 7 or August 12 to 18, depending on weather conditions. She expects a number of local friends to be present, whether they’re on the shore, part of the crew or swimming with her toward the end.

“They’ve just been a really amazing supportive group,” she said. “Heather, my friend with MS, she and her husband are going to be supporting me, and I’m just so grateful that she and I are able to do this together.”

Three couples with boats will escort her from the beginning to the end of the lake over the estimated 24 hours.

Preparing for the swim isn’t all physical, according to Simmons.

Before a marathon endeavour, she trains a lot, swimming about 30 to 40 hours a week, quite a bit of that in open water.

There’s also mental preparation, such as finding out about the lake, wind conditions, the best time to swim it and what else she might experience.

“I also do a little bit of sleep deprivation work before because the swim is going to take me 24 hours if I make it,” she explained. “So I need to be able to stay up overnight and be comfortable with that idea.”

Additionally, there is a lot of fear involved in open-water swimming. There’s the dark, the cold and the unknown below.

On one of her previous swims, Simmons encountered a humpback which swam right beneath her. With only a kayak beside her, she said she was terrified.

“I said, ‘Okay, I can either get out of the water now, I can exit right now from my fear or I can swim for another half an hour and get over that fear.’ And I’ll do that often. Like if I find I’m afraid to do something, I’ll say, ‘Just do this little step and slowly chip away at that fear.’”

Staying fed, hydrated and awake

During the 24-hour event, her team will flag her down every 30 minutes for a fuel break. In a true marathon swim such as this, the swimmer is not allowed to touch the ground or a boat at any time. So, treading water, her team throws her drinks and snacks.

“Usually, I ask them to tell me a few good jokes and stuff while I’m eating,” said Simmons. “I keep it light, and then I give them back my water bottle or my liquid bottle and carry on.”

The breaks are more often at night time, especially if she’s getting nervous.

“It’s pretty hard to swim in the dark. When I first started night swimming, it was such a bizarre sensation, like if it’s a cloudy night, it tends to be lighter out, so it’s not bad. Or, if it’s a full moon, you have the light of the moon. But if it’s completely blocked out, it can get really tough.”

Although there are lights on the boat, having them shine directly on her actually makes her sight worse, so she uses her night vision for the most part.

“If I cannot trust the people around me, I’m not going to do it. Especially night swimming.”

She’s fallen asleep during a night swim before. Once it happened, she alerted her team, and they gave her something to refresh herself and keep her awake.

“But the next time it happened, it was on another swim. I was treading water, trying to eat something, and my face plunged into the water. And I just heard my husband screaming my name to wake me up.”

She must trust her crew, she said, and know they are watching her and understand the gravity of the situation.

“If you have good people around you, being courageous is so much easier.”

Connecting the group

Simmons learned that the qathet MS group disbanded over the past few years, partly due to COVID-19 restrictions and risks.

“I’m hoping through my swim, people will start connecting again,” she said. “I’m going to be raising funds for people with MS in Powell River. I want to connect with them to find out what kind of fitness programs would be of value to them.”

She’s leaving it to her friend Armstrong and the local MS community to figure out how best to put the funds to use for the people who really need it.

Simmons said people with MS often live in isolation, so she started a nonprofit charity organization in Victoria called the MS Wellness Centre. During the pandemic, the centre closed, so she, too, needed to find a way to connect with her community.

“So I started this group with a friend,” she added. “We don’t make a lot of money, but we fund little programs where people can do yoga, or they can do aquafit or things like that. That’s kind of what I’m trying to do in Powell River.”

She hopes this swim will help the local MS community get back together again and offer some resources to keep the connection going.

Moving and grooving

Simmons was diagnosed with MS 27 years ago; she said her doctor told her not to exercise. After trying it that way for 10 years and getting to a point where she could barely walk, she took matters into her own hands and started swimming.

“I have managed to find a way to live with the disease up to this point where I’m able to remain active in the community in a way that’s meaningful to me,” she added.

Simmons hopes other people can be inspired by her story. She knows what it’s like to receive a diagnosis and fears personal limitations.

“For some people, there are things you can do to just remain out there and remain active,” said Simmons. “I know not everybody who’s diagnosed is in that position, but for those who can, just keep moving and grooving and live the wonderful, lovely life you want to live.”

Simmons’ crew will be live streaming during the swim on her Facebook page and will have a spot tracker at

Spectating is welcomed, but she asks those in boats to be mindful of their wake and fumes. Donations will be accepted online or in person at the event.