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King’s Swim: Leahi Camacho captures third straight triple crown

July 6, 2014 - 8:18am

Capturing the Bike Works Triple Crown of open water swimming is tough.

Pulling off a hat trick of Triple Crown titles is unheard of.

But don’t tell Leahi Camacho that. She rarely takes no for an answer.

The award is presented to participants with the lowest cumulative time in all three qualifying races — the Cinco De Mayo Splash, Hapuna Rough Water Swim and Saturday’s King’s Swim.

Camacho captured her third consecutive triple crown with a total time of 1 hour, 6 minutes and 8 seconds in the three races.

“It has been the goal since I won last year,” Camacho said. “I wanted to win it one last time before I left as my last hurrah. I’ve been very fortunate.”

Male winner Daniel Manzo completed the trio of races in 1:07:15. Despite not winning a race, Manzo used top-five finishes in every event to outpace the competition.

For Camacho, it has been a whirlwind year. On top of it being her senior year at Kealakehe High School, Camacho became the youngest to complete the grueling 26-mile open ocean trek between Molokai and Oahu, dealt with a roller coaster swimming season, and most recently, had to battle back from mononucleosis to maintain her Triple Crown prestige.

“The regular senior stuff was just added on top,” Camacho joked. “I did struggle in the beginning, but as the year went on I was able to adapt a little more. It has been an up-and-down type of year.”

Kaiwi conqueror

The journey began with the idea to become the youngest to conquer the Kaiwi Channel.

After extensive training and preparation, Camacho made the swim across the channel in late August.

Despite warnings early on that the winds may have been too strong to complete the feat, the quest went as straight forward as a 26-mile swim over open ocean could go, until the halfway mark.

Just as the sun peaked over the horizon, Camacho was stung by a Portuguese man-of-war. The marks covered her face, arms, legs and back, and the pain was nearly debilitating.

Faced with the decision to stop or keep going, Camacho chose the latter.

“I’ve been told that I was pretty stoic through the whole situation,” said Charlie Camacho, Leahi’s dad who was on the support boat. “I remember her looking up at me after the bite and I told her, ‘it’s your call.’ It was such an incredible moment for me to see her battle through that. If I would have passed away in the next day, or minute, I would have felt like my life was fulfilled. A morbid thought, but to see her go through that was unbelievable.”

Since then, the incident has turned a little more light-hearted in the Camacho household. At Leahi’s graduation, Charlie made a 30-foot-tall jellyfish out of an old weather balloon filled with helium that hovered over the crowd.

After the conclusion of her swim, Camacho had garnered so much support she had thousands of dollars left over. Camacho contributed those funds to Hazel Hammersley, a 4-year-old from California enduring 18 months of chemotherapy. Camacho learned of Hammersley though her work with the Talbert Family Foundation. On June 16, the family announced Hammersley had completed inpatient treatments.

“Since I had first started training for Kaiwi, I wanted to find a way to give back,” Camacho said. “It was a highlight for me realizing I could give back and make contributions to people who needed them.”

After Camacho won the Cinco De Mayo Splash with a time 20:04 — 20 seconds better than second place finisher Cara Jernigan — it looked like a third Triple Crown was a sure thing.

However, a run-in with mononucleosis in mid-May put Camacho in hospital for three days and brought the title run into question.

Camacho was told by doctors to stay away from physical activity for at least six weeks and that a comeback from the illness could take anywhere from three to six months.

“The doctors told us her spleen was enlarged, and if anything was to make contact with it, her spleen might burst,” Charlie Camacho said.

Despite the bad news, Camacho’s quiet, but sturdy confidence never faltered.

“It was a thought — briefly — that maybe I couldn’t do it,” Camacho said.

Camacho stayed away from training for nearly three weeks, but couldn’t be kept away any longer.

“You cannot tell an athlete to sit still for that long. I was antsy to get back to work,” Camacho said.

While condensed, Camacho managed to get in the water to train and try and mount a title defense.

Still fresh on the comeback trail, Camacho was able to stay with the lead pack at Hapuna, finishing at 21:03 — around 18 seconds behind the winner.

Top finisher Kylie Burgess — a visitor from Minnesota — did not race in the Cinco De Mayo race, making her ineligible for the Triple Crown title. Camacho finished just four seconds behind Jernigan, the closest qualifier for the Triple Crown.

“She was down for the count for a while,” said Steve Borowski, Camacho’s long time coach. “I was surprised she even did Hapuna and that she had been able to keep up with her training.”

Camacho wrapped up the title with a 25:01 at the King’s Swim Saturday.

“I’m happy the Cinco swim came out how it did and I was able to use that lead,” Camacho said. “I think without it, the last two races would have been much more stressful.”

A new chapter

Camacho will attend Wagner College in Staten Island, N.Y., on a swimming scholarship this fall. She leaves in early August, and for her dad, it is a bittersweet experience.

“Watching her grow has been the most rewarding experience,” said Charlie Camacho. “I could not have asked for a better daughter. Now, she has a chance to take a bite out of the Big Apple.”

Borowski recalls a much younger and “rounder” Camacho coming to his swim class years ago, but has enjoyed seeing his pupil’s metamorphosis.

“She has transformed into a beautiful young woman and a tremendous athlete,” Borowski said. “It’s tough seeing them go. You are with them two hours every day for 10 to 12 years. There are ups and downs, but you really become family. “

Camacho said she does not think it is feasible to defend her title next year, but did not leave out the possibility of coming back and competing at some point.

“I love everyone in the community. It makes me happy knowing that Kaiwi, and all these things have brought people together and I have been able to maybe inspire some people along the way,” she said. “It has been emotional knowing I’m leaving this behind and starting a new chapter with people I don’t know. But I think I can walk away knowing I made the most of it.”

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