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Victoria swim team to relay around North Pender Island

The swimmers, who each live with an intellectual or physical disability, will swim in 10C waters—without wetsuits.

Robyn Bell
June 10, 2024
Sports
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Victoria swim team to relay around North Pender Island

The swimmers, who each live with an intellectual or physical disability, will swim in 10C waters—without wetsuits.

Robyn Bell
Jun 10, 2024
Spirit Orcas. Photo: Courtesy of Susan Simmons.
Spirit Orcas. Photo: Courtesy of Susan Simmons.
Sports
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Victoria swim team to relay around North Pender Island

The swimmers, who each live with an intellectual or physical disability, will swim in 10C waters—without wetsuits.

Robyn Bell
June 10, 2024
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Victoria swim team to relay around North Pender Island
Spirit Orcas. Photo: Courtesy of Susan Simmons.

A local open-water swim team is about to prove disabilities don’t have to be a barrier by swimming around North Pender Island this week in 10-degree water—without wetsuits.

The Spirit Orcas are a team of nine swimmers, aged 20 to 50, all competing at different levels. Each lives with a physical or developmental disability, including Down syndrome, autism, PTSD, blindness, and epilepsy.

“It is quite unique—I don't know of any other open-water swim team for people with intellectual and physical disabilities anywhere in the world,” says coach Susan Simmons. “I know there's individuals that swim, but not a team that focuses specifically on that.”

The Spirit Orcas surfaced seven years ago while Simmons was training swimmers for the Special Olympics. Six swimmers came to her, asking her to teach them about open-water swimming. 

“So I said, let’s give it a try!” says Simmons.

Initially, their goal was to swim the English Channel, between the UK and France. But they discovered a wealth of open-water routes in BC that were just as exciting—and challenging.

They train year-round at Crystal Pool in the winter and Ogden Point or Thetis Lake in the warmer months.

Because of the variety of swimming levels, the group is divided into “pods”—inspired by the team’s namesake, Southern Resident orcas. Three are in J Pod, three in K Pod, and one swimmer, who is very new to open-water racing, is in L Pod.

The North Pender swim isn’t the only demanding open-water relay they’ve set their sights on. Their first was a 35-km stretch along the length of Lake Cowichan. That swim took place partially at night, with two team members completing it in the dark.

Next, they tackled ocean waters off Bella Bella, through Gunboat Passage. Simmons says they’re the first group to swim a relay in that area. They’ve done other swims near the Great Bear Rainforest and the Gulf Islands. But their biggest swim came during the pandemic when Simmons wanted to keep the team engaged and busy. They did an 80km staged swim—a race broken up over days, each day starting where the last left off—from Brentwood Bay to Colwood over seven weeks. Depending on the swimmer’s level, they would swim up to 14 km a day.

These difficult swims push each team member out of their comfort zone, and Simmons says the sport has helped them tap into leadership skills. Some of the swimmers are now coaching younger people with disabilities or adults looking to learn about open-water swimming—a leadership role that Simmons says is often out of reach to those with learning disabilities. 

“This is remarkable. People with intellectual or cognitive disabilities coming out of Special Olympics to be swim coaches is unheard of,” says Simmons. “A lot of times when you have a disability, you never even get asked if you can do this. There is no assumption that you can, it's not even a possibility.”

Simmons wants to ensure that this confidence is instilled in each Spirit Orca swimmer. She sees Spirit Orcas not only as a swim team, but as a life-skills program, with team members involved in every step of organizing their trips and training schedules.

It’s also widened the swimmers’ social circles. They’ve been invited to parties by other cold-water swim teams and they often give presentations on their team at libraries and community events. Simmons says this unique hobby offers an easy talking point to make socializing easier for the swimmers.

“It's shown other people that you don't have to be afraid of people with disabilities,” says Simmons. “They're just people and just hanging out with them and spending time with them, you'll see that they bring value to the world. And they truly do.”

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Robyn Bell
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Victoria swim team to relay around North Pender Island
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