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Spirit Orcas swim group complete 80km open water swim to raise money for COVID relief

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By: Rebecca Cheverton

Last Canada Day, masters swimmer Susan Simmons, and the Spirit Orcas put on their bathing suits, grabbed their caps and goggles and embarked on the first stage of their 80-km swim to raise funds for COVID-19 relief in Victoria

Simmons, an ultra-marathon swimmer with multiple sclerosis, coaches the Spirit Orcas, a group of swimmers with intellectual disabilities. The group had originally planned to go up to the Great Bear Rainforest this summer and do a relay swim. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic the event was cancelled.

One group member, Ben, wanted to do something to replace this event and raise money for their community during this difficult time. So he worked with Simmons to come up with the idea for the “Great Big Swim.” The group would swim 80km over eight weeks to bring awareness of staying fit during the pandemic and raise money for the Greater Victoria Vital Fund, to help the community’s recovery from the effects of COVID-19.

“At the time all the pools were closed, so we had nowhere to train and we wanted to show people if there is a will then there is a way, and we can figure out a way to work through this,” said Simmons. “Not only can we work through it but we can be better on the other side, and that is part of the message they [wanted] to send.”

Every Saturday or Sunday from July 1 to Aug. 16, the group got in and swam more than 10 km at a time. The swim began at Brentwood Bay, continued around the Saanich Peninsula and ended at Colwood Waterfront and Lagoon.

“We actually only did seven swims because we sometimes swam up to 15 kilometres each time,” said Simmons. “We took a one-week break between so everybody could have a physical and mental break from it and the total was around 87.5 km in the end.”

For those who were unable to swim the longer distance, the group was divided into two and called themselves J-Pod and K-Pod after the orca whales in the Salish Sea to continue with their Spirit Orcas team theme.

“J-Pod did the longer swims, they did 10 kilometers or more each time,” said Simmons. “K-Pod did up to two kilometres each time. I had plotted a route that K-Pod could join us at the end and lead us into the final landing spot.”

Simmons and the Spirit Orcas were also joined by Victoria swimmer, Jasmine Kremer, who swam alongside them as a way to keep training while her pool was shut down.

The group was supported by a great safety crew. Their plan was reviewed by the Search and Rescue team which is linked to the Coast Guard within the Vancouver and Victoria area.

“On a typical day we had four kayakers surrounding the group […] there would be one up front, one behind and one to the left and one to the right and then we also had a kayaker out in the lead and we had a rescue boat that would be available should one swimmer need to be evacuated,” said Simmons.

The group also had a sweeper behind them to make sure no one got left behind.

The seven swims came with their challenges. Some obstacles they faced were big winds, jellyfish, strong currents, and cooler water temperatures in certain areas.

In the end, the Spirit Orcas finished the Great Big Swim and raised around $7,000.

“They just fully embraced it and got in and took on the challenge,” said Simmons.

“I like to think they lifted a lot of hearts along the way too. People were on the shoreline cheering them on as they were going.”

This amazing feat not only captured the attention of locals, but has also been noticed globally. Simmons has been nominated as one of the finalists for the Women of the Year award by the World Open Water Swimming Association for guiding this swim. The award is presented to a woman who best embodies the sport of open water swimming: tenacity, perseverance and a sense of adventure.

Simmons started coaching Special Olympics five to six years ago in Victoria and found that the swimmers weren’t being challenged to the degree that they could be. She started challenging the group in the pool with distance swims. Eventually, they saw what Simmons was doing in the community with open water and they decided they wanted to try that. Shortly after, the group was made and they decided to name themselves the Spirit Orcas.

The group hopes to be able to complete their swim trip to the Great Bear Rainforest next summer, but in the meantime they are planning the Great Big Bike Ride and the Great Big Hike to continue raising money for their community.

“If you are surrounded with the right people, anything is possible. They will lift you up and help you get there,” said Simmons.