By DANIELLE POPE
August 10, 2011 · Updated 3:58 PM
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Renate Herberger, 55, is one of many swimming activists the Island has seen lately. She swam Saanich Inlet last Friday to make a splash about ocean protection and our impact on marine ecosystems. /

Locals take to the waves to prove their points, and their fitness this summer

Renate Herberger swam 19 kilometres of the Saanich Inlet without a break on Friday, Aug. 5, just to prove that the precious marine ecosystem sanctuary is worth that double take. Only a day after on Aug. 6, two Victoria women swam the 35 kilometres of the Georgia Straight in an attempt to raise awareness about Multiple Sclerosis (MS).

Despite the less-than-brilliant weather Victoria has seen this year, aqua active-ism seems to be becoming the newest way to splash into a wetsuit and a tight cause this summer. But eager paddlers could have more to contend with than just proving their point — the sport comes with its own dangers that often get overlooked in the face of a good cause.

Only this past Tuesday, 61-year-old U.S. swimmer Diana Nyad abandoned her quest to swim a record distance from Cuba to Florida — without the aid of a shark cage — when poor conditions, shoulder pain and asthma convinced her to abort the mission a little after midnight. Nyad had been swimming for 29 hours straight, but strong winds had pushed her nearly 25 kilometres off course.

“It’s hard because I felt like I had it in me. It felt like this was my moment,” Nyad told media. “I don’t feel like a failure at all. But we needed a little more luck.”

Luckily for the Victoria swimmers, luck was on their side. MS activist Karen Tannas and MS athlete Susan Simmons managed to relay swim the 35-kilometre-route between Sechelt’s Davis Bay and Neck Point, Nanaimo in nine hours and 33 minutes, placing them first in the Salish Sea Swim race and beating last year’s relay winners by two minutes.

“A lot of this is for the challenge, of course, but Susan has used fitness as a way to manage her disease, and when people can watch someone achieve this, it’s a very powerful message,” says Tannas, a passionate open-water swimmer who has organized the Thetis Lake swim for MS for 19 years.

Simmons was diagnosed with MS over 15 years ago, and has been using both fitness and diet to manage the disease for the last five.

“I am excited about the opportunity to raise awareness about the importance of being healthy and that even those of us with MS can do extraordinary things,” she told media before the race.

Due to reports of heavy swells and rough conditions over the weekend, the race saw teams and solo swimmers back out, leaving Tannas and Simmons to compete against only two other swimmers. While the pair considered backing out, the two had been training five to six days a week to prepare for the event, including sessions at Willows Beach in water as cold as eight degrees Celsius. They decided to forge on, and won the race.

“We were a little nervous at first, but we had such positive people in our team and on our boat, and we just had fun with it. A lot of people were very impressed,” says Tannas.

Just a day earlier, 55-year-old Herberger left her dock at the foot of Verdier Avenue in Brentwood Bay and arrived a solid nine hours later — with no break — 19 kilometres away at Chalet Beach in Deep Cove.

Herberger, a lifetime professional swimmer, has now swam a total of 4,441 kilometres locally, around Costa Rica and the world. She teamed up with local enviro activists the Dogwood Initiative to add these last few kilometres to her roster in an effort to highlight the importance and fragility of the Saanich Inlet marine sanctuary.

“This is a national marine enjoyment area, but we’re looking at a marine disaster right now,” says Herberger, who has been a swimmer since age four but suffered an athletic injury and now uses swimming to relieve pain. “Saanich Inlet is my swimming pool, and the ocean has a magic that nothing can rival.”

Herberger, originally from Germany, calls herself a peace pilgrim in water — a peace mermaid — and says that before every swim she says her prayers to the ocean for safe passage, clearance from jellyfish and continued energy. So far, she’s been raising awareness for marine ecosystems all over the world. On Friday, dozens of supporters and media showed up to cheer her on her route, and Dogwood was there to help bystanders learn more about the impact we have on our oceans.

While Herberger says the water was “bloody cold,” she was thrilled with the attention she received, especially given the short notice — she’d only started planning the swim two days before her launch.

Due to the success, Herberger and Dogwood have another, bigger swim planned for next July, where Herberger plans to swim the oil tanker route along the Straight of Juan de Fuca. And, if the move is any indication, swimming active-ism around Vancouver Island will maintain its popularity long after the waves have settled.

“The ocean is my goddess, my mentor, my lover, my guide,” Herberger says. “Anything I can do to help her, I will. And, all we can hope is that people will take note of that.” M

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