Strait chasing: Swimmers attempt Juan de Fuca crossing

Susan Simmons of James Bay and Jill Yoneda of Cadboro Bay set to hit the water Monday morning for the 29.5-kilometre swim

(This story has been updated only to reflect the postponement of the swimming attempt to Monday, July 31.)

A pair of Greater Victoria swimmers are looking to make history as the latest in the modern era to swim across the Juan de Fuca Strait.

The two, Susan Simmons of James Bay and Jill Yoneda of Cadboro Bay, postponed the 29.5-kilometre swim attempt until Monday.

Simmons is no stranger to open water swimming with a list of cold water accomplishments but Yoneda, who had major surgery on her right leg just seven weeks ago, is new to the sport.

They’ll boat over on Saturday night and attempt the swim early on Sunday from a beach near Port Angeles, Wash. to the shores of Victoria, possibly Clover Point, ala Marilyn (Bell) Di Lascio of 1956.

Last year the duo swam through a 50-kilometre stretch of the Great Bear Sea and attempted another leg of the Great Bear in June only to be turned around by poor conditions. They’re holding out hope that the Juan de Fuca will be swimmable during the season’s best window for weather.

“It will be cold, and actually, I don’t think I want to know how cold it will be,” Simmons said. “I expect it to be about 10 or 11 C, which is colder than any major swim I’ve done. So I’d rather not be told.”

At best, it will be sunny and 12 C. Ideally, there’ll be little wind.

Simmons will abide by the open-water swimmer’s code using only a swimsuit, goggles and a cap. Yoneda, a three-time Canadian record holder in free diving, will forego the code and wear a wetsuit, as if that’s anything to scoff about.

The two trained at Willows Beach over the winter in water as cool as 3 C. It was so cold the swimming pool thermometer Simmons attaches to the back of her swimsuit wouldn’t even register.

“I haven’t trained [my body] enough to do it without a wetsuit,” Yoneda said.

Obviously, we’re talking about a pair of tough Canadians. Simmons, 52, and Yoneda, 42, are attempting a feat only a few people have accomplished. Because Yoneda will wear a wetsuit she won’t make the same list as Marilyn Bell, but that’s OK with her.

Yoneda, like Simmons, has overcome life challenges most people never face.

So far, Yoneda has had nine surgeries on her legs and 15 in total. 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.

“It means her muscles are too big for her calves and they squish her arteries,” Simmons said.

Yoneda was diagnosed 18 years ago and had it fixed bilaterally but it came back due to her swimming and diving. She could follow one doctor’s advice and give up ocean swimming, but that would take away her greatest passion, the open sea.

And yet, Yoneda also has another condition, compartment syndrome. In her back are six titanium plates. Despite the surgeries, chronic pain is a reality.

“Pain can drag you down,” Yoneda said. “It’s an easy twirl down the drain but I prefer to persevere. Sometimes it’s just finding the right doctors who will listen.”

Yoneda says she’s blessed to have met Simmons now that she’s not competing in free dive. And like Yoneda, Simmons came to the sport while overcoming obstacles.

In fact, if it wasn’t for multiple sclerosis Simmons has said she’s not sure she’d be the swimmer she is today. About 12 years ago she was temporarily blind, sometimes for up to two months. She was also 80 pounds heavier and was bound to spend her life in a wheelchair.

Simmons started exercising knowing swimming would cool her body (overheating triggers MS symptoms), and now swims 30-plus kilometres a week with three different masters clubs in town.

The two will be joined by a flotilla of support including motorboats and kayaks, with Simmons’ partner Ray supporting her, and Saanich’s Darren Bachiu, who’s crossed the strait by kayak and paddle board, supporting Yoneda.

As for the Juan de Fuca, there are recent crossings. Steve Walker made the attempt in June 2016, and Karl Kingery earlier this month, though each went unsuccessful.

Washington resident and prolific open water swimmer Andrew Malinak, president of the Northwest Open Water Swimming Association, completed the crossing on his second attempt in September 2015.

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