The members of the Spirit Orcas were, understandably, reticent to get into the water.
It’s April and there was no way around it, the ocean off Victoria’s Gyro Beach was cold. On this particular day the water was 9 degrees and the air temperature was a chilly 5 degrees.
“I don’t know about this, I’m not ready, I don’t think I can get my whole body in,” said 22-year-old Ben Van Lierop.
He is one of six Special Olympians hand picked by coach Susan Simmons to challenge themselves with ever-longer relay swims.
This was their first ocean swim of the year, part of training to head to the Great Bear Rainforest in July to relay swim the 34-kilometre length of Gunboat Channel, ending at Bella Bella.
“I think it’s going to be wonderful, it’s such a serene place, it’s so different, no distractions. You’re just out in nature and I think it’ll be really a nice place for a lot of them to be,” said Simmons.
But they have to be ready, for the cold water, and the feel of currents and waves during an open-water swim, which is what brought them to the beach in April.
“It’s cold today, we’re crazy,” laughed Dixon McGowan, his confidence faltering.
That’s when the force of Simmons’s energy and personality started to show.
She calmed the anxiety and fed confidence with quiet words.
“If somebody is starting to feel anxious, I look them in the eye, I may hold their hand, just reassure them that it’s OK. The cold won’t feel as cold in a minute and it’s OK, we’re together, we’re having fun,” said Simmons.
As her words of encouragement washed over them, the athletes stood taller and waded into the waves with new determination.
Their fear was soon replaced with fist pumps and cheering, as a few even plunged right in and tried some strokes.
“Just moving around and moving around to stay warm,” explained Drew Sabourin, another team member.
Simmons is so confident they will succeed in the Great Bear Rainforest swim this summer, she already has a much more ambitious plan mapped out.
In 2020, they will relay swim across the Georgia Strait. A couple of years after, that they will conquer the English Channel.
The six swimmers, aged 19 to 45, have different backgrounds and challenges, but they’ve connected with their common goal.
“We just be ourselves with each other, we make plans and we hang out with each other, make fun of each other when we get cold, but it’s fun,” said Cheyenne Furlong Goos.
Simmons leads by example. She is a record-setting long-distance swimmer, driven in part by her determination not to let multiple sclerosis slow her down
She wants her swimmers to succeed not just at the challenges she gives them in the water, but to learn they don’t have to expect less than anyone else because of any disabilities.
“I just really want them to believe in themselves and know that they can do anything that they set their minds to,” she said.
A few minutes later, Van Lierop could be seen wading in past his waist, laughing and smiling, his fears long forgotten.
Then McGowan went for it and swam before making a triumphant exit from the water.
“Did you see me swim to shore?” he asked onlookers as he was handed a towel.
Then he turned, looking straight at the camera and beamed with pride.
“I swam to shore!”