News & Updates

Coffee with Susan Simmons, long distance swimmer

I was lucky enough to join Susan Simmons for coffee this week. We talked about 30 hour swims, being an athlete with MS, community, and conservation.

You’ve just returned from the Great Bear Rainforest, right?

Yes, I was there doing the Great Bear Swim again. I’ve swum over 100km along the Central Coast of Canada through the Inside Passage. They are 6 to 10 hour days, and I skin swim – which means I don’t wear a wetsuit.

How do you train for spending so much time in the cold water? 

I jump in off Ogden Point in the winter, and have trained to spend increasingly long amounts of time in there – anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes.

Actually, though, the water in the Great Bear Rainforest was so warm this year! It has me worried.

What was that experience like?

It was kind of amazing. The water there is very different – there is a sweetness in the salt, it’s cleaner. The wildlife is also more active. I saw large schools of fish and a lot of humpbacks. My crew had 8 encounters with humpbacks one day, and had to navigate me through a humpback highway.

Where does your mind go when you’re swimming?

It’s my zen, and the place where I meditate. It’s different than becoming grounded though running because when I’m swimming I am floating the whole time. The rules of my swim are that I cannot touch the bottom until I’ve arrived at where I set out to go.

So you don’t touch the bottom at all when you’re doing the distance swims?

That’s right. Every 30 minutes I stop and tread water, and my crew throws me a snack, but I don’t touch the bottom at all.

What foods do you find are the best sustainance during those long swims?

It’s a combination of protein, carbs, and some caffeine. I aim for about 100 calories every 30 minutes so that I can last for swims between 5 and 30 hours. 

My drink has green tea caffeine, which gives a smooth and regulated buzz instead of a spike, and I love Hornby Island bars. I’m vegan so they also work for me in that way. I also use Vega bars, gel packs, and bananas. Cantaloupe is my favourite – and it gets the taste of salt out of my mouth!

You’re at such a high level of swimming and training now. How did you start swimming?

When I was 30 years old I was diagnosed with MS, and for 10 years I did nothing. I was told not to stress my body, and it got to the point where I could barely walk. I thought that the doctors must be wrong, and decided I was going to start exercising. From exercise comes energy – you give out and get back. 

Swimming was perfect because I can’t overheat, which is one of my triggers. I also swam as a youth, but I didn’t want to stay competitive because it can get nasty. When I moved to Victoria I started swimming in the Thetis Lake swim, and kept going from there. I hope I can be showing people with MS that you can still have an active lifestyle. 

For me it has become holistically about body, mind, spirit, environment, and community.

Have you found lots of community in Victoria?

I have a massive community in Victoria. Partly I think because I’m doing something that is new to a lot of people, and they want to be involved and support that. When I tell stories like almost getting scooped up by a humpback bubble-net it intrigues people!

Do you feel that you’ve inspired people through your swims?

You’d have to ask them. I’ve heard that I am inspirational to people, but what is most meaningful to me is hearing that I’ve inspired people to action – especially when most of us with MS have been told not to exercise. That is what makes me really happy.

I also want to show people the importance of exercise – I don’t take any drugs at all, and so exercise is not just a complementary part of my health so much as the main reason for it.

How do you take care of your headspace while you’re swimming?

When I am swimming I try so hard not to swear, even though it can be so frustrating. Number one for me is always being polite and respectful to my crew. Beyond that we try to joke and have fun along the way. We’ll make whale jokes.

Like any other person I can be in a bad head space. I often use swimming and reggae to change my mood. Both are very rhythmic, and swimming – like yoga – means doing a lot of conscious, regulated breathing. Another thing about swimming is that most of your senses are deprived – [laughter] if someone is bothering you, you can’t hear them!

And where does your mind go when you’re swimming?

I am very present. I also try to solve the world’s problems. I do a lot of thinking. In the Great Bear Rainforest I think a lot about the environment where I am swimming, and the differences between here and there. The big questions come up like ‘who do I want to be in the world?’ and then I write about them.

What were you thinking about this year?

This year I connected to the idea of patience. I thought about the importance of patience to human connection, and about why we’ve stopped being patient with each other. I also think that the reason we dispose of so much is lack of patience.

In the swim itself I had to be very patient. At one point I was at the intersection of two different channels with water pushing in different directions. I would look for a tree on the shore, swim 10 meters, and look for the next tree so I knew I was moving forward.

I often say that the ocean teaches me. It sends me a message, and if I am in that space I can receive and share it – I share it both through writing and public speaking.

What does a week of training look like for you?

I train with 3 master swim clubs: Tyee with Mike Neill coaching, Victoria Masters, and the YMCA Masters. Having Mike as a coach has been fantastic. He gets the psychology – he can just look at me and understand what’s going on. He also knows I need to keep moving.

When I am in full training I do an additional 10-20 hours a week on top of the clubs training. I often swim at Thetis lake because it’s a 30 minute lap, and a cold water swim at Gyro and Willows. I also cross train with weights, spinning, and may take up yoga this year.

I outrigger canoe 2 to 3 times a week as well with Sea Kayak, and we race all the way to Hawaii. I canoe for fun as well, and have started prone boarding.

You know Arbutus Physio through Mike Neill?

Yes! Arbutus has saved me more than once – I actually went there for a shoulder injury just before leaving for the Great Bear Rainforest. I appreciate so much that my physio, Sandy, never says no. She understands my goals, and she helps me get there. 

When I was looking for a physiotherapist I put the word out and Mike recommended Arbutus. The first day I went I was apprehensive – people often look and make assumptions – but after the first appointment I knew I would be back. They truly want to help.

How do you spend your time when you’re not training?

I work in technology for the province as part of the Chief Information Office. We provide tech to all of the ministries.

I also volunteer quite a bit. I coach the Special Olympics, and from there formed a group of six people called the Spirit Orcas. The Spirit Orcas just did a 20km skin swim in the Great Bear Rainforest. We all stayed with my friend – the one with the bathtub on his property – and created supportive community. It is important not to tell people they can’t, but to instead ask ‘how can I support you to get there?’

Pacific Wild is one of my sponsors, and my swims up there are really about conservation. I first started swimming there to understand why no tankers in the inside passage. I return every year.

My friend Diane Thompson and I also started an MS Welcome Centre after the MS Society closed down the only gym in the country. We are trying to get a physical space again, but in the meantime we provide services to people living with MS.

For me being with these communities of people is what’s fun. Also sometimes I just binge on Netflix!

Right now I’m also learning how to DIY a Mercedes sprinter van so that I can swim across the country. When I retire I want to go place-to-place meeting and swimming with people in communities, and enjoying their presence. It’s cool how off the grid you can be – these vans can have solar panels and everything! I think it will be a nice way to retire my long distance career as well. It will also be nice for my partner, Ray. He supports everything I do and has fun on our adventures. It’s also hard for him to watch me doing the riskier, harder swims like the Juan de Fuca. I don’t see it this way, but to him it seems like I’m suffering, [laughs] and he wants to take care of me so it makes him grumpy.

Before we wrap-up, I have also been wanting to ask you about the photo on your website where you are sitting outside in a bathtub?

Haha yes, the bathtub photo – I really try to have a sense of humour about life and fun with my swims. I have a close friend who owns Drifters Cove, and he hosts me for free when I go to the Great Bear Rainforest. He has an outdoor bathtub on his property, and since I took that photo it has become a must-do thing for people when they come to visit. We want to get it working so that people can actually take baths outside. If they’re lucky they’ll see humpbacks from the bath because it is right next to the ocean.

Susan lying back in an outdoor bathtub in a red plaid jackets, pink gumboots, and a glass of wine smiliing widely.
Drifters Cove Bathtub