Swimming across the English Channel sounds as impressive as the task at hand. It is a historic distance, and rightly draws the attention of the world when those daring enough attempt to swim the distance. It is 21 miles of open water, all while facing the tides and currents, making the mental endurance just as or more important than the physical strength required to conquer the journey solo. 21 miles, coincidentally, marks the distance to cross Lake St. Clair, located on the Eastern side of Michigan near the enclave of Grosse Pointes’ and bordering the lowest corner of Ontario, Canada. On August 7th, Kalamazoo College alumni Sarah Colegrove (K’89) succeeded in crossing the same famed distance in 9 hours and 27 minutes.
Colegrove began training nearly a year prior for her swim in October 2013, swimming five days a week, and combined with running and lifting weights twice a week. “My goal was to complete the swim and still lead a balanced life,” said Colegrove, a partner at Briggs Colegrove, P.C. The idea had presented itself after having taken a trip to Slovenia two years ago to swim with a British open water swimming outfit. “After a swim in Lago del Predil, the coldest open water swim I have ever experienced,” Colegrove said, “I discussed the idea of swimming across Lake St. Clair with another swimmer. He asked if we swam in the lake all the time. I said, ‘No.’ He asked, ‘Why not?’ I didn’t have a good answer. The wheels started turning, and the planning started after I returned home.” A process, she maintains, didn’t end until she started the swim the day of the crossing.
“Not until about a month before my swim did I know my start point. The planning phase really didn’t end until I started my swim on August 7th. The whole thing was a work in process […] I figured out everything on my own and with the help of my support team, which was part of the fun, but I didn’t reinvent the wheel. I consulted with experts,” Colegrove said.
Entering the water at the tip of Wapole Island Indian Reserve in Ontario, Canada and finishing at the Grosse Pointe Farms Pier in Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan, Colegrove chose the route to give the crossing an international dimension, while also taking into account critical matters of safety and personal ability. “I wanted it to be an international swim (Canada to the U.S.),” Colegrove said, but also “to be a bare bones adventure with safety considerations being paramount. I had to consider the current, boats, and freighters too. The route straight across is 24 miles and the route I would have wanted to swim, but I wasn’t prepared to commit to such a big swim for my first effort.” Simply put she said, “less people means less logistics.”
Colegrove’s support team during the swim included her law partner and event trainer Todd Briggs in a 22ft. Boston Whaler named “Kokio Ula,”and Royal Oak attorney Erica Ehrlichman. Ehrlichman’s son, Ben Heidebrink, timed Sarah in 30-minute intervals to know when she should eat (take in liquid nutrition water bottles) throughout the nearly ten-hour swim.
Ehrlichman, who is an intense endurance competitor herself, kayaked alongside Colegrove the entire 21 miles. “I kayaked beside her for navigation, to hand her the water bottles every 30 minutes, and to observe her physical condition as the swim progressed,” said Ehrlichman. Ehrlichman has so far completed three Ironman triathlon races, and is training for her next in 2015. “My long distance triathlon training and race experience helped with remaining focused during more than nine hours of kayaking,” she stated, “and most importantly in understanding the physical and mental stress that Sarah was enduring.”
An experienced swimmer since age six, Colegrove has completed three marathons, three ironman distance triathlons, and many triathlons of other distances, including a twelve hour race. During such long events it is the mental game that can be the deciding factor, but is a strong reason why Colegrove values swimming. “After about an hour of open water swimming, I don’t think about much of anything. I was totally focused on the moment and, when I was really tired, I tried to focus on my form. It’s very zen-like. That’s why I love it. It clears my mind.” Taking thirty minute intervals as time for fuel made the swim more manageable, the steady pace giving Colegrove confidence. “I continued to say to myself, ‘swim 30 more minutes and see how you feel.’ I did this for the rest of the swim until I finished.”
Colegrove was greeted by on lookers in kayaks and boats near the finish, pushing her to reach the pier. “The support from all of these people that I didn’t even ask to help really picked me up and made the finish special,” she said.
Colegrove is now training to swim across the Straits of Mackinaw over Labor Day weekend 2015, but states that she is still contemplating her next big adventure.