“These guys are pretty amazing heroes.  They really are,” says Susan Simmons, coach of the Spirit Orcas swim team.

Coach Susan Simmons is no stranger to long-distance swims.  Diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis more than 20-years-ago, Simmons finds nutritious food and physical fitness, especially swimming, preferably in cold water, helps her manage her disease.

Simmons coaches other swim teams, which is how this Great Bear Rainforest swim came about.

“I’d been working with a number of developmentally-disabled athletes through Special Olympics, and there was a group of them that wanted to do a little bit more,” she says.

That “little bit more” has grown into a 25-kilometer relay swim in Northern B.C., from Gunboat Pass to Bella Bella, this July.

“I’ve done some swimming up there, and I thought it would be a really nice place for them to go” Simmons explains.  “A lot of the athletes have some anxiety, and Great Bear is a really calming place.”

I talked with the Spirit Orcas team before a training session at Victoria’s Crystal Pool. The six team members are excited, and a little nervous, about their upcoming adventure.

“I’m happy about it,” says Maria Sharock, “but I’ve swam in a lot of oceans and rivers and stuff.  Once I’m used to the cold water then I’m fine, but it’s just the getting over the first shock of it…going in!”

“I’m excited about the Great Bear swim” says Drew Sabourin.

“It’s going to be different, and my body can easily get used to the cold water.  Two days ago, when they had the Polar Plunge for Special O [Olympics] at Willows Beach, I actually got into the water a couple of times” Drew adds with a proud smile.

The athletes trained, in relay formation, in Lake Cowichan in the summer of 2018.

“We swam 29 kilometers of it,” says Maria.  “Only one kilometer we didn’t swim because it was way too rough, and Susan pulled us out.”

Asked if he is nervous about the swim, Dixon McGowan gave a thoughtful, honest reply.  “A little bit…I don’t want to lose the group [during his portion of the relay swim], but swimming?  I like swimming outdoors… in the ocean.”

Ben Vanlierop hesitantly admitted “I’m not sure if I can do this or not. My body is just not that used as much to the cold water.  Sometimes it can be too much for me.”

But Ben is facing that fear, adding that he will finish his leg of the swim “little bit by little bit.”

Susan took the Spirit Orcas to IMAX recently, to watch the Great Bear Rainforest.

“Seeing the movie helped,” says Susan, “because now they can visualize where they’re going to go.”

“I’ve never been up there,” says Cheyenne Furlong Goos, “so I’m really excited to see the different place!”

Aly White loved seeing the movie and is also excited about traveling to the Great Bear Rainforest.

“I want to take a bear home!” she announced with a smile.

When the Spirit Orcas aren’t in the pool training, they’re busy fundraising, as the team must raise all the money for this swim themselves.

“We’ve got to pay for the ferry there and back,” says Susan, “for a portion of our lodging, we need to pay for all the safety boats, and all of our food while we’re there.”

The team raised $2000 through a Swim-A-Thon at Crystal Pool in early February.

“We’re going to do a carwash, and a bake sale, and a garage sale and all that kind of stuff,” says Ben Vanlierop, listing some of the upcoming fundraisers.

“There’s a lot of life lessons in the swim,” says Coach Susan proudly.

“It’s way bigger than ‘the swim’. I think the biggest part of it is about community, and supporting one another, and the importance of that. They’re all really seeing how important it is to help one another through this.”

Click here to lend your support to the Spirit Orcas swim in BC’s Great Bear Rainforest.

Veronica Cooper