CHEK Upside: Spirit Orcas to swim 80 km in open water to raise money for COVID-19 relief fund

CHEK Upside: Spirit Orcas to swim 80 km in open water to raise money for COVID-19 relief fund
WatchThe group, made up of adults living with various developmental disabilities, are eager to push their limits while making a difference in their community.

No matter the season, taking a dip in the frigid Pacific Ocean that lines Vancouver Island is not for the faint of heart.

“Chilly with the wind, very chilly,” said Dixon McGowan, a member of the Spirit Orcas swim group.

“You kind of just have to go in. I have this saying where I say ‘I count to three and I just say [expletive] it,” said fellow Orcas member Lidia White after a quick swimming session at Victoria’s Gyro Beach.

The Spirit Orcas are a swimming group consisting of adults who live with a wide range of developmental disabilities. Led by their coach, Susan Simmons, the group has completed several difficult swimming challenges in the past.

“They’ve been across Lake Cowichan, they’ve done a 35-kilometre relay. Last year they were up in the Great Bear Rain Forest and did a 20-kilometre ocean swim with whales all around them, it was pretty amazing,” said Simmons, an open water swimmer who lives with multiple sclerosis.

Since April, the group has set their focus to a new swimming challenge motivated by a timely cause; the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ben Vanlierop, a long-time member of the group had an idea to help those suffering from the pandemic.

“I’m very concerned about people losing their jobs and their lives and I’m excited to save people from COVID-19,” said Vanlierop.

“We’re going to be swimming from Brentwood Bay all the way to Colwood, kind of hugging the island,” said White.

The group is calling the endeavor the Great Big Swim. It’s an eight week, 80-kilometre swim relay starting July 1. It is all so they can raise funds for the Victoria Foundation, which supports local charities and non-profits.

“These are my heroes,” said Simmons. “So you imagine yourself trying to go in the cold water. They’ve been in ten-degree water – do that with anxiety disorder, they’re already anxious to begin with and then you add the cold water and they just get in and they do it and keep swimming,” said Simmons.

The dedicated group are excited to push their limits and proud to be making a difference. McGowan is direct when asked why he’s willing to brave the frigid and choppy waters.

“It’s fun.”

For more information on the fundraiser and how to donate, visit

Kevin CharachKevin Charach

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