Susan Simmons is a Canadian marathon swimmer living with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). MS is chronic, progressive autoimmune disease that impacts the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. Symptoms may include numbness, pain, spasms, weakness, fatigue, balance and coordination problems, dizziness, visual problems amongst others. MS “attacks” often lead to symptom flare-ups and can cause permanent nerve damage. It is a disease for which there is no cure.
Susan was diagnosed with MS in 1995 at the age of thirty when she suddenly lost her vision in her left eye. At the time, she was told to not exercise as it may trigger attacks and put her at risk of permanent damage. Her neurologist advised her to go home, rest and should anything happen she should be put on steroids.
By the time Susan reached 40 she had become so debilitated by the disease she had an ever-increasing number of symptoms including balance issues, depression, fatigue, repeated bouts of optic neuritis, pain, sensory impairment and numbness, Uhthoff’s Phenomena and weakness. She found it difficult to walk a block and it was clear that if she did not take action she would be in a wheelchair before the age of 50.
With the Doctor’s recommendation of passively managing the disease not working, Susan knew she had to find another way. She believed that fitness was her only hope.
MS is often a heat sensitive disease with exercise causing attacks as the body temperature warms. As a child, Susan was a competitive swimmer. She had not swum in over 25 years but knew that it was water that would keep her out of a wheel chair. In 2005 she made the decision to return to the pool and began swimming 500 to 1000 meters at a time followed by 2 hour naps. Overtime she built-up enough strength to join a Masters swim club and began competing again.
Susan started open-water swimming in 2008, three years after re-entering the pool. In 2012, she competed in her first 10km assisted (wetsuit) ocean swim (Vancouver Open Water Swim Association’s Bay Challenge) placing first amongst women. In the years between then and now she has abandoned her wet suit for more traditional open-water swims and has completed a number of marathons in both lake and ocean.
Following English Channel rules, in 2013 Susan swam the length of Lake Cowichan, a 34KM distance in 18C water. The following year she extended the course and swam 70KM continuous unassisted in just over 31 hours. In 2015, she exited the water half-way through an attempted 105KM swim. She had become quite ill during darkness and choose to stave off the risk of permanent damage to her body. She is the first person with MS known to swim these distances.
In 2016 Susan traveled to Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest on the central coast of British Columbia where she began exploring the waterways of the Inside Passage. Her first year in the area, accompanied by friends for portions of the swim, she swam from Ocean Falls to Bella Bella; a 50KM unassisted staged swim over 2 days in 14-15C water. In 2017, she returned to the region swimming a good portion of Lama Pass over 2 days in 13C water. On her second day of the swim encountered a humpback and opted to exit the water knowing there were several more in the area. In 2018 Susan re-entered the water in June completing what remained of Lama Pass, crossing Fisher Channel. The water was between 9 and 10C and her swims were between 4 and 6 hours. This year Susan swam down Fisher Channel and became the first person to cross the Burke, a channel well known for wild currents and winds. She then swam passed Namu, through Fitz Hugh Sound and onto Koeye. She has swum over 100km in the territory thus far.
Susan is the first known person to swim these distances in the Great Bear Rainforest. She works hard to maintain a relationship with the Heiltsuk First Nation as she swims through their traditional territory. Each year Susan uses her swims in Great Bear to help raise awareness about environment stewardship, raise funds for Heiltsuk kids’ camps and raise awareness about MS. Last year she helped organize a swim program for local children and brought donated swimsuits, gear and wetsuits for the locals. She plans to continue her journey down Fisher Channel and eventually be the first person to swim unassisted across Queen Charlotte Strait; an 18km stretch of wild water between British Columbia’s mainland and the tip of Vancouver Island.
In 2017, after completing her swim to Namu, Susan returned to her home in Victoria Canada and began preparing for a swim across Juan de Fuca Strait. Late July 2017, following English Channel rules, Susan swam the traditional route swum by Marilyn Bell and Vicki Keith from just outside Port Angeles USA to Victoria’s Ogden Point – a distance of 33KM. The water at the start of the swim was 11C and at the end 14C. Susan completed the swim in 10:06, the fastest known crossing of the traditional route to date and she is the 7th person to complete this swim. Susan’s crossing was used to raise awareness about the benefits of fitness for people living with MS as well as funds for a non-profit she recently established.
This year Susan attempted an unassisted double crossing of Juan de Fuca Strait following English Channel rules. The water temperature was between 9 and 11C. She swam for 7.5 hours forced to exit the water as hypothermia set in. She hopes to make the attempt again in two years.
Susan’s swims are remarkable as she swims in some extremely difficult bodies of water with strong, unpredictable currents. She is one of few who is able to manage such cold temperatures for such long periods of time. What is extraordinary however, is that she does this with Multiple Sclerosis, and for her community. From the start, Susan has inspired people around the world with MS and other disabilities to challenge themselves and be fit.
As a Special Olympic coach Susan has worked with her athletes to aspire to and achieve excellence. In 2018 she coached and escorted 6 developmentally disabled adults to a successful 35km English Channel style relay swim in Lake Cowichan. This year she coached that same group through a 20km relay swim in the Great Bear Rainforest. She also coached Meliah Motchman, a 27 year-old with Down Syndrome, to complete a 5 kilometer swim at a local lake.
Susan continues to take on these ultra-challenging marathon swims and lead by example for people who are more often told they can’t or should not. She is a both a leader who has had significant impact on the disabled community and inspirational swimmer to people with (and without) special needs in the sport of Marathon Swimming.