Susan Simmons (right) chats with a member of her team after halting her swim across the Strait of Juan de Fuca Saturday evening. (Photo contributed)

‘Takes more courage to fail’: B.C. ultra-marathon swimmer reflects on cancelled try at record

Susan Simmons halted her swim from Victoria to Port Angeles and back because of hypothermia

  • Aug. 21, 2018 12:17 p.m.

By Paul Bucci, special to Black Press Media

As ultra-marathon swimmer Susan Simmons grappled with deciding to halt her epic attempt to swim from Victoria to Port Angeles and back because of hypothermia, a question came up.

Was the whole venture a failure?

Yes.

And no.

“Sometimes in life, it’s honourable to fail because safety always comes first,” Simmons said Sunday, a little more than 12 hours after she was towed nauseated back to her safety boat the day before, helped aboard and slowly made warm again, violently shivering and vomiting as she was nursed back to health.

“You know,” Simmons said, “it takes more courage to fail then it does to succeed in some cases.”

Simmons, who has multiple sclerosis, always wants to drive awareness about the disease.

It’s something that Marilyn Bell, one of Canada’s most well-known athletes for being the first to swim across Lake Ontario, told Black Press Media a day before the attempt.

“Susan’s story is amazing, it’s exciting,” Bell said on Friday the day before Simmons was set to enter the water.

“But it’s so much more than that,” Bell said, referring to Simmons’ work with Special Olympians and other causes, including joining Rama DelaRosa for part of her recent swim to circumnavigate Salt Spring Island to help raise awareness about B.C.’s starving killer whales.

“She has a powerful message, and swimming is her platform to deliver that.”

Strong winds with waves reaching higher than two metres and numbing cold forced Simmons to stop her swim on Saturday.

Tossed around like a woodchip in what’s known as the washing machine, where winds and waves collide with punishing ferocity in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Simmons, who had swum across the strait last summer, realized her head had gone numb.

Blown off course, she swam 26 kilometres to make it just 15k as the crow flies.

Motion sick, and unable to hold down even a sip of tea, she began to shiver harder than she had ever shivered in her life.

After 8.5 hours in the ocean – nearly all of it in water of only 9C – Simmons understood she had hypothermia and there, in the smoky black evening sky, just shy of the American border, she made the devastating decision to halt the swim.

A little earlier, in one of life’s fateful coincidences, Simmons was thinking about the plight of B.C.’s resident orcas, who are malnourished because of diminishing stocks of chinook salmonm when suddenly she noticed boats loaded with “tons” people staring at her.

Confused, Simmons couldn’t understand why they were there, but then she turned her head and looked behind her.

“I saw fins,” she said. A pod of killer whales had ventured near her swim, and whale-tour boats were watching the orcas’ every move.

Simmons started her swim well, with a strong stroke and good progress, but the ocean was colder than normal, with temperatures she thinks were driven down by the thick cloud of wildfire smoke that has virtually blacked out the sun in the past week.

But conditions worsened, and every degree lower than 12 C presented more and more of a “huge risk.”

“Water is just coming in all directions,” Simmons said. “You can never really find a rhythm in your swimming, and you’re tossed all over the place, again and again.”

On board her support boat’s hold, wrapped in a grey blanket, her face was blue and bloated and her legs gone white, and she shivered so violently that she was unable to even hold a cup of tea.

Will she ever attempt a double crossing of the strait again?

Probably not, but she is considering another attempt to swim from Victoria to Port Angeles, which is far more difficult than the other way around.

How about open water swimming? Will she continue with that? Absolutely yes.

She’ll be doing a relay through Lake Cowichan with her Special Olympic swim team, and plans to swim 26 miles in October in solidarity with an MS marathon run to be held in Detroit.

This would come as no surprise to Bell, who knows all-too well about the effort it takes to swim once across the strait, let alone twice.

“She may have a setback and will have to give up,” Bell said before the swim. “But she’ll never really give up.”

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