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Perfect day to swim 29km across the Salish Sea

Susan Simmons and Jill Yoneda successful in crossing strait
Jill Yoneda recovers in an embrace with Mandy-Rae Krack on the boat launch of Clover Point. Travis Paterson/News Satff

At about 4:40 p.m. on Monday Saanich’s Jill Yoneda crawled up the Clover Point boat launch with every last bit of energy, exhausted from more than 10 hours of swimming 29.5 kilometres.

She swam until she hit land, but she couldn’t walk. Yoneda is the 12th known swimmer to make the crossing between the Washington state shore and Victoria.

“It’s a nice day for a swim,” stammered Yoneda, who was shivering from the effects of the cold water. “It was a perfect day and I couldn’t have done it without my crew.”

About 40 minutes later Susan Simmons became the 13th person to swim across the Juan de Fuca as she stepped on to the shore of Dallas Road where the beach meets the breakwater of Ogden Point.

The geography of Simmons’ landing was ideal as she promptly made her way up for a beer at the Ogden Point Cafe.

“I’d really like a salad and a beer, maybe something local,” she told TV cameras as she stepped out of the ocean.

Simmons also joins the list as the eighth swimmer to make the crossing without a wetsuit.

Northwest Open Water Swimming Association, or NOWSA, which tracks open water swims in the Pacific Northwest, knew of seven successful unassisted swims and four swims with wetsuits.

What makes Simmons and Yoneda’s accomplishment stand out is that both women have overcome serious physical afflictions in their lives.

So far, Yoneda has had nine surgeries on her legs alone. Her most recent surgery, on her right leg, pulled all the muscle off her right tibia to create room for the major artery. It’s the ninth surgery to correct a rare condition called popliteal artery entrapment syndrome, which affects her from the knee down. She hopes to have the left leg operated on in the fall. Yoneda also has titanium plates in her back and neck. Yoneda also has drop foot on one leg, not that it slows her in the water.

“I’m still kind of in shock that I made it,” said Yoneda, at about 5 p.m. Monday. “I didn’t think I was going to make it.”

The power of the ocean and of the human body proved themselves as despite wearing a wetsuit Yoneda was taken to the hospital to recover from the cold, while Simmons, who’s trained far more in the discipline of open water swimming (no wetsuit), was able to walk out of the water and use only a towel to dry off.

“Stayed at the hospital for a bit because I was hypothermic then had a good nights sleep,” said Yoneda. “Can barely move my arms today and the legs are quite painful but it was worth it!”

Perfect day to swim 29km across the Salish Sea

Simmons, meanwhile, started swimming to deal with multiple sclerosis. It’s lead to several big swims including the length of Cowichan Lake, twice, a non-stop, 31-hour adventure in 2014. She’s since attempted but failed to swim 105-kilometres in Cowichan Lake for an open-water record, but did conquer a 50km stretch of the Great Bear Sea (split into two days of 25km each) last year, with Yoneda swimming most of that.

But through it all, and with an appreciation for Marilyn Bell’s 1956 crossing, Simmons hadn’t considered the Juan de Fuca.

“Great Bear was my first big ocean swim and it was so easy [thanks to the ocean buoyancy compared to the hard swim of lake water], that I thought I got to try this, it was a really easy swim,” Simmons said. “You’re just floating in the ocean.”

The Routes:

On Monday, the duo left at separate times from Dungeness Spit, a little west of Port Angeles. Yoneda knew their swim times would likely differ so there was no need to swim together. They each had two kayakers for support, plus a boat, while Yoneda had a paddleboarder and a second boat also cheering her on.

Yoneda launched a little after 6:30 a.m. with a goal of hitting Clover Point.

Simmons launched around 8 a.m. with a goal of hitting either the Inner Harbour (she wanted to swim right to Ship Point), Ogden Point beach or Clover Point.

At near the same time Yoneda was crossing Ross Bay to finish at Clover Point, Simmons “spent an hour” spinning near the entrance to the Inner Harbour.

“It wasn’t happening, once I realized that we changed course for Ogden Point,” Simmons said. “It probably added a kilometre or more but, oh well.”

The Cause:

From the start Simmons’ swimming challenges always included a fundraising component for MS, though she has a new cause since the MS Society closed its centre Victoria in the fall. Simmons is now campaigning to raise money to reopen a MS wellness center in Victoria.

Since MS showed up in Simmons’ life, she’s used a vegan (and often raw) diet to combat the disease, coupled with a high level of exercise.

When the centre closed it left more than 200 people using the fitness centre and physiotherapy looking elsewhere.

“We know exercise works, we know we need these services and when they closed it was devastating for the community,” Simmons said. “Some of them are shut-ins now, not only can’t they afford those things, because they’re almost all on disability.”

“We’re taking matters into our own hands. What we really want is physio and eventually a gym again, hope to open a new centre.”

Yoneda is also asking for those inspired to donate to a local First Nations program she recently visited in Tofino.

- With files from Jesse Major, Peninsula News Daily