When the mermaids began calling and the disco lights flashing from Lake Tahoe's chilly depths, Brittany Percin's father knew it was time to pull his teenage daughter from the water.
“I kind of got cold 2 1/2 hours in, but I kept on swimming and kept on swimming, and then about 5 hours in, I just wasn't thinking straight,” said Percin, 15, describing her attempt to swim the 12 miles across widest point of Lake Tahoe in the early hours of Sept. 3. “I kept swimming and my dad was watching me, and I was seeing things, lights at the bottom and stuff, and he said, ‘OK, I think you need to come out.'”
Percin, a relatively experienced open-water swimmer for her age and a standout on the Truckee High swim team, protested, reluctant to abort her impromptu swim and leave her “open-water buddy,” Cara Silvas. At the same time, however, she knew her time in the 59-degree water had come to an end.
“I wanted to move forward, but I was cold and I kind of went into a ball and couldn't get my arms to move anymore,” she said.
Silvas, meanwhile, a 2011 Truckee High grad who now attends UC Davis, continued on to the finish line, completing the swim from Secret Harbor to Sunnyside in a time of 5 hours, 54 minutes. And that was after treading water and turning around to make sure her friend, no longer by her side, was OK.
“Cara is kind of my open-water buddy. She's done it before and she's really experienced,” Percin said of Silvas, an expert distance swimmer with swims of 20 kilometers under her belt. “I knew she'd be able to make it, and that it would be much nicer to swim with someone.”
Percin, whose longest swim prior was about 6 miles, covered roughly 10 of the 12 miles and was in the water for 4 hours, 50 minutes. She and Silvas left Secret Harbor under moonlight at 5:07 a.m., with an air temperature of 34 degrees. Neither wore a wetsuit as they swam side-by-side through the dawn.
“It was kind of funny, because we kept running into each other in first half-hour,” said Percin, who said she plans to attempt the distance again, perhaps after more cold-water training. She said she is accustomed to swimming in Donner Lake, where the water temperature is close to 68 degrees — “and that's a huge difference.”
Percin planned the swim about a week earlier on a whim.