Distance swimmer just shy of world record

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After 50 hours submerged in the choppy, wind-blown waters of Cowichan Lake an exhausted Cpl Alex Cape decided to call it quits.

She swam a remarkable 94 kilometres in the large freshwater lake over the August long weekend, but fell two kilometers short of the world record for longest continuous open-water swim.

“I swam pretty freaking far. I still can’t completely wrap my brain around it,” said Cpl Cape, 35.

“There have been 12 people who have walked on the moon, but only four have swum this distance before, solo and unassisted.”

On Sunday evening around the supper hour, Cpl Cape and her support crew in nearby escort boats decided to end her aquatic marathon due to safety concerns.

Cpl Cape, an experienced swimmer who works as a medical technician at CFB Esquimalt’s clinic, says she doesn’t consider the result a failure.

She and her swimming partner Susan Simmons, 50, set off from the shores of Municipal Beach on the southern shores of the lake on Friday July 31 at 4 p.m., with an aim to swim 105 kilometers.

Simmons has multiple sclerosis, so her goal to smash distance swimmer Vicki Keith’s 1987 benchmark was even more incredible.

The two Victoria Masters Swim Club members took on the challenge to raise funds for Special Olympics and MS and to raise awareness about the website ‘What’s Your 105?’

Simmons previously swam the English Channel and the Georgia Strait and was aware of the daunting challenge she faced this time around.

In 2014, the two completed a 70 km swim of Cowichan Lake, but this time around the weather conditions were much less favourable with higher winds and waves.

By midmorning on Saturday, Simmons had covered 44 km before her MS had the final say about how far she could push her body.

Vertigo, vomiting and the inability to keep vital nutrients in her stomach had dashed hopes of completing the swim.

“You need to be mentally prepared and realize that you might not complete the distance,” explains Simmons.

“I am glad I was able to make the right decision at the right time.”

Simmons, a B.C. Public Service employee, began swimming over 10 years ago and used the challenge to show other people with MS they can lead active lifestyles despite the disease.

“She [Susan] is my friend and teammate and the fact she has MS rarely enters my mind, but when it does I realize the mass distances we are covering and how inspiring Susan’s determination is to myself and others,” said Cpl Cape.

“My goal is to make people aware that exercise is a legitimate form of therapy for MS,” explains Simmons.

Cpl Cape’s swim was only two km short of the world-record distance of American Ted Erikson and Egyptian Abdel-Latif Abou-Heif who swam Lake Michigan in 1963.

Vicki Keith’s double-crossing of Lake Ontario in 1987 and her distance of 105 km may have been incorrectly reported with some saying the Canadian marathon swimmer covered 94 km.  

Cpl Cape, who began swimming 25 years ago, said a nine-hour period of strong winds and fierce pounding waves Saturday afternoon and evening greatly slowed her progress and led to her eventual exhaustion.

Aside from suffering nose bleeds and head-to-toe chaffing that open water swimmers normally endure, she says hallucinations became a serious factor as fatigue and sleep deprivation took over.

“I was swimming and sleeping at the same time with my eyes closed just like a zombie. I would catch myself falling asleep, I would be swimming in a straight line following the course and then all of the sudden take a sharp right turn, which was very concerning for volunteers in the escort boats.”

While neither reached their initial goal, they were pleased to get word on Saturday that a young swimmer whom they coached had succeeded in her five km swim in Cowichan Lake.

Special Olympian Aly White of Saanich had actually exceeded her goal by one km, giving everyone cause to celebrate.

“I was so thrilled to hear this and it really motivated me to continue,” said Simmons. “She swam like a champion the entire time.”

Simmons and Cpl Cape both said they will need more time to decide whether they will make a second attempt to break the record.


Peter Mallett
Staff writer

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