Henniker woman completes long-distance swim amid California wildfires, other setbacks

  • Nautical map of the 10.6-mile swim Colletti-Lawson completed while at Lake Tahoe in August. —Courtesy

  • Fires raged in the background at Lake Tahoe, filling the air with a smoke-filled haze and darkening the daytime skies. The fires canceled various swims throughout the time Colletti-Lawson was there.

  • Cheryl Colletti-Lawson readies herself ahead of the Vikingholm swim path on Lake Tahoe, which straddles California and Nevada. She completed the 10.6-mile swim in six hours and 54 minutes. Courtesy photos

  • Nautical map of the 21.3-mile swim that Colletti-Lawson attempted, but did not finish. When she completes this swim she will have completed the Lake Tahoe Triple Crown. —Courtesy

  • Colletti-Lawson swims in Lake Tahoe along the Vikingsholm route this August.

Monitor staff
Published: 8/27/2021 5:52:35 PM

Cheryl Colletti-Lawson has crossed state lines more than once in her life.

She’s done that by car when visiting family in Massachusetts. She’s done that by flying in airplanes. She’s done that by taking a train as well.

But once again she’s crossed state lines in a fashion that most people haven’t.

By swimming.

Yes, the 55-year-old Henniker resident has crossed state lines by swimming before. In 2019 she achieved that by swimming the width of Lake Tahoe, where she started in California and ended in Nevada.

When she completed the 12-mile feat, of course there was a celebration, but not too long after, she was already thinking about returning to Tahoe for a greater challenge.

Amongst open water swimmers, there is a well-regarded challenge called the Triple Crown of Lake Tahoe. The three courses, simply called “true width,” “the length” and then a specific stretch called the “Vikingholm,” make up the crown and it’s an accomplishment that open water swimmers around the globe have been after.

With the width already accomplished and a third of the way to achieving her crown, Colletti-Lawson knew that getting back to Tahoe meant pushing herself past her comfort zone and through distances she’s swam before.

Often regarded as the most difficult leg of the triple crown, “the length” is a 21.3-mile swim and the longest of the crown.

It was the swim she wanted to accomplish next.

Such a long swim required a tougher training regimen. She started swimming for seven hours in a given day without getting out of the water. Seven went upward until eventually she was in the water for over 10 hours.

Between swimming in pools and open water, Pilates and other endurance-centric strength workouts, the most important aspect was the mental training.

“During all that training, my mental state got stronger and stronger as I accomplished the longer swims,” Colletti-Lawson said. “I was confident that I had the endurance ability to complete this swim.”

Her mental training included meditation with help from the Calm app.

Open water swims need to be booked well in advance and coordinated with organizations that can officiate and authenticate the swim.

The swim was booked in January 2021 – well before anyone could have predicted how much the wildfires would engulf the region like they have.

“I would have to say we weren’t fearful at the beginning that the swim would be canceled, (but) until we received emails from the pilot of the boat indicating that several swims had been canceled the week before my swim (the worry set in) ,” she said.

Not only had swims been canceled the week prior to her swim, there were swims canceled even days before her attempt.

Nothing was going to stop her, however, from at least traveling so she and her team set out for Reno, Nevada, where they resided ahead of the swim.

At 8 p.m. on August 14 is when she dove into the water and started the long swim. Not only were the nearby wildfires an issue, but Colletti-Lawson and her team tried a new fueling strategy. Usually, she consumes 10 to 11 ounces of a carbohydrate fuel blend in a sport water bottle every 30 minutes.

For this swim, instead of the traditional sport water bottle, they opted for a collapsible one.

She could see the stars illuminating the sky and the fires, at this point, were miles away. What she could not see in the dark of night, however, was her new water bottle collapsing.

And as a result she only consumed three to four ounces instead of the normal amount.

“I’m starting to get depleted and then I started to cramp,” she said. “I was like ‘what’s the cramp in my triceps? ‘What’s that cramp in my hamstring?’” “I’m getting grumpy. I’m swimming, and then I started getting cold.”

According to Colletti-Lawson, the water temperature was around 66-67 degrees and with the pitch black surrounding her, the mental fatigue started creeping in too.

At one point she thought her guide boat – filled with her team and representatives from the Pacific Open Water Swim Co. – was going to abandon her. She asked herself if she was going to be OK, was she going to make it.

Between the mental and physical fatigue, Colletti-Lawson knew she had to end the swim. Officially marked as “DNF” (did not finish), she was too tired and too cold to feel the disappointing results.

Her and her crew arrived back at their condo and at 3:30 in the morning, both the tough end result and the day itself, ended when Colletti-Lawson’s head landed on the pillow.

Fortunately for her, she at least got to attempt the swim. With the wildfires starting to close in on the lake, mass cancellations were sent out to swimmers because of air quality and other related issues. It became so hazardous that all flights in the region were either booked or canceled and grounded for safety reasons.

“Our skin was burning, our eyes were burning,” she said. “One morning I woke up and I thought it was snowing, but it’s all the ash coming from the forest fires.”

Don’t think that Colletti-Lawson came home without completing something. Amid the cancelations, there was a break in the weather and a phone call from Sylvia Lacock to Colletti-Lawson began with a simple question.

“Would you want to swim?”

Lacock, the president of Pacific Open Water Swim, had been monitoring the weather conditions daily. Despite sending cancelations to plenty of swimmers the days before and after Colletti-Lawson’s attempt, she gave the New Englander an opportunity to attempt another portion of the triple crown.

After close to seven hours of swimming on August 19, Coletti-Lawson completed the Vikingsholm stretch of the triple crown. Not even a week removed from her DNF, she still managed to earn another portion of her crown and was able to head home with a feeling of redemption.

“It gave me my mojo back,” she said. “I was elated, just so elated.”

Her swim was one of the last in the season because with the fires beginning to worsen, the season was canceled.

Colletti-Lawson knows there is more work to be done in order to achieve the last and most daunting leg of the triple crown. The training will be more rigorous. It’ll be harder, longer and maybe even different.

But it’ll be worth it when she crosses those state lines once more.

Matt Parker bio photo

Matt Parker is a sports reporter at the Monitor and started in August 2021. He is an Ohio native and relishes being from the Buckeye state. A proud graduate of Ohio University located in Athens, Ohio, he served as the sports editor for the student-run newspaper, The Post, from 2019-20. When not at a game or chasing around a coach, you can catch him playing his guitars or looking for the next Peanuts memorabilia piece to add in his growing collection.


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