When you’ve been dropped into open water in the dead of night somewhere in middle of the Salish Sea, there is no time to doubt yourself.
Or give in to the “C-word.”
“It’s not that cold,” says distance swimmer Cheyenne Furlong Goos. “My body temperature regulates, I’m already used to the cold water…You just push through it.”
“Cold” and “freezing” are unspoken words for the Spirit Orcas – a group of Greater Victoria swimmers with varying developmental disabilities. The group is working their way up to swimming the English Channel – but the next stop in their journey is in the Great Bear Rainforest.
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Coach Susan Simmons – an accomplished marathon swimmer who lives with multiple sclerosis – worked with some of the athletes during her role as a trainer for the Special Olympics. She says many of the swimmers weren’t being challenged enough, and soon began coaching a small group of six athletes interested in trying out endurance swimming outside the pool.
The Spirit Orcas were born.
“There’s no reason that we shouldn’t challenge people with disabilities,” Simmons said. “I think it’s life-changing for them. For most of their lives they’ve been told, ‘You cant do this,’ and for someone to turn around and say, ‘How can I help?’
They have a lot more confidence in themselves and they feel more respected and heard and valued.”
Members Cheyenne Furlong Goos, Dixon McGowan, Drew Sabourin, Maria Sharock, Ben Vanlierop and Aly White meet three to four times a week for training.
And the group has made some incredible achievements already – including swimming the length of Cowichan Lake in 2018 – the same distance as the English Channel.
Now the swimmers are heading north to swim a 25-kilometre relay through the Gunboat Passage near Bella Bella - Heiltsuk territory in the Great Bear Rainforest – the team’s first major swim in the ocean.
After that milestone, the Spirit Orcas will swim the Strait of Georgia between Sechelt and Nanaimo where the water temperature – about 9 to 11 degrees – is similar to what they will experience in England.
When they’re ready, the team will head to Dover and swim the channel – front-crawling and butterfly stroking from England to France.
“It’s amazing to see how [the Spirit Orcas] have embraced this and how devoted they are to what they do,” Simmons said. “Imagine you have an anxiety disorder and you are placed in open water in the middle of the ocean…I’ve watched them tackle one fear after another.”
For Simmons herself, MS never stopped her from distance swimming – in fact she’s swam over 100 kilometres collectively since her diagnosis.
“That’s because people around me believed I could do it,” she said. “When we think about people with disabilities and how we can help them – it’s by believing in them.”
A GoFundMe account has been set up to help raise funds for the Spirit Orcas’ journey to the Great Bear Rain Forest. Visit gofundme.com/spirit-orcas to make a donation.