Grosse Pointe lawyer swims 21 miles across Lake St. Clair

Sheila Pursglove
Detroit Legal News

Please, no jokes about sharks and lawyers.

Attorney Sarah Colegrove didn’t encounter any finny friends in her recent 21-mile swim across Lake St. Clair, although she learned afterward that Great Lakes freighters had come close from both directions.

“I’m glad I didn’t know that,” she told the Detroit Legal News. “Swimming across the (shipping) channel was scary.”

Fulfilling a lifelong dream, 47-year-old Colegrove started her solo international crossing at 6:30 a.m. Aug. 7, from the southern tip of Walpole Island Indian Reserve in Ontario, and came out of the water 9 hours and 27 minutes later at the Grosse Pointe Farms Pier beach near her hometown of Grosse Pointe. The distance is the same as across the English Channel.

“The day went by really fast — it’s all a blur,” she said.

Colegrove, of the Briggs Colegrove PC law practice in downtown Detroit, got lucky with sunny, warm weather and surprisingly little boat traffic with the exception of the freighters, but the water temperature was bitterly cold after the brutal winter — especially on the Canadian side where water feeds in directly from Lake Huron. After chilly training swims in recent weeks, she abandoned her original plan to swim without a wetsuit.

“The weather wasn’t warming up and I was running out of time. I didn’t want to risk not finishing due to cold temperatures, so I opted to wear a wetsuit. I think it was a good decision,” she said. “There was a small chop, but overall very good conditions. One of the benefits of swimming in your own backyard is that you can wait for a good day.”

A swimmer since the age of 6 on the Grosse Pointe city swim team and later at Grosse Pointe South and Kalamazoo College, Colegrove has competed in several triathlons, including three Ironman races, and is also a passionate cyclist and a defender of cyclists who have run afoul of the law or who have been injured.

But this swim was the hardest physical and mental challenge she has ever faced, she said.

“My shoulders were sore, my stomach was upset and it’s hard to eat while treading water,” she said. “I broke the swim down into 30-minute increments and told myself, ‘Just 30 more minutes.’ ”

The Michigan State University College of Law grad’s team included support boat driver Todd Briggs, a triathlete and swimmer with more than 17 Ironman races and Michigan Masters Swimming records to his name and who is former coach of the Grosse Pointe South girls swim team and Colegrove’s law firm partner. Their concentration is in civil litigation and probate matters.

Bankruptcy attorney Erica Ehrlichman, a member of the Insolvency Group at the Findling Law Firm in Royal Oak, kayaked next to Colegrove for the full 21 miles and helped her navigate across the lake. Ehrlichman’s son, Ben Heidebrink, served as Colegrove’s timer to ensure she ate at regular 30-minute intervals.

About four hours into the swim, the 9 Mile Tower and the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club were visible.

“At that point, stopping was not an option,” Colegrove said.

As she came within sight of the Grosse Pointe Farms Pier, waiting friends escorted her to shore in their kayaks.

“It’s difficult to describe how I felt when I finished,” she said. “I was very tired but satisfied at the same time. The finish was actually fairly anticlimactic. I didn’t tell too many people about it, so there was no fanfare. It took a while for the whole experience to set in. But it was one of the best experiences of my life — now, whenever I look at the lake, I smile.”

Colegrove’s past swimming events involved a lot of travel. This year, it occurred to her that Lake St. Clair would provide a new — and local — adventure.

“The lake was absolutely beautiful and clear — I could see the white sand bottom, fish, plant life and shells,” she says. “I don’t know why I didn’t start swimming in the lake sooner.”

She started her arduous training for this marathon swim in October, doing most of her training in the pool, and with a schedule designed by Briggs. For the past few months, open water swims were included, with the longest training swim being five miles. She would sometimes swim more than 30,000 yards in one week, but said the training was as much fun as the “big swim.”

“Having a goal made the swimming seem purposeful,” she said. “It was the first time in a long time that I enjoyed the journey as much as the event.”

Before Lake St. Clair, Colegrove’s longest swim was five miles.

“I didn’t take off any time from work either, other than to do the big swim — I had court the day before and the day after the swim,” she said.

At the persuasion of a friend, Colegrove did her first marathon in 1997, a fundraiser for the Leukemia Society.

“After that, I just kept going,” she said. “I like to stay active. Sports are definitely a good release but they also help me stay sharp.”

She has taken part in three Ironman races, with her best finish at Ironman Florida in 11 hours 31 minutes; as well as many other distance triathlons, running races and bicycle time trials.

“I like open water swimming because it’s the closest thing to meditation I’ve ever experienced,” she said. “After about an hour, my mind is completely clear. It’s also very peaceful and calming in the open water. I love it.”

Colegrove has set her sights on swimming the five miles across the Straits of Mackinac next year.

“Other than that, I’m still looking for my next big adventure,” she said.