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Dozens brave chilly Tampa Bay waters to help wounded, fallen Navy SEALs and families

There are lots of ways to ring in the new year. One way is to pull on a wet suit and swim across Tampa Bay.

That's what 67 hardy souls did early Sunday morning, braving the chilly, choppy waters before most of us had even finished breakfast.

They made the 3-mile swim to raise money for wounded and fallen Navy SEALs and their families.

"I've had people ask me, 'Why not do it later in the day? Why not do it in the summer?' But it's meant to be a challenge," said organizer Rory O'Connor.

This was the second annual Tampa Bay Frogman Swim. The first one, held a year ago, was kind of a "pirate event" — no permit, no insurance. Swimmers worried that someone would call the cops, or the Coast Guard.

But they ended up raising $30,000 for Lt. Dan Cnossen, a Navy SEAL who lost his legs to a land mine in Afghanistan.

This year's swim was more official, with a Coast Guard escort. They hoped to raise $50,000 in pledges for the Naval Special Warfare Foundation. The charity provides services for wounded SEALs and college educations for the children of fallen SEALs.

"It's a nice, easy swim on a balmy day," joked Pat Marzulli, 62, of Indian Rocks Beach as he pulled on his swimming cap. "It's a tough day, but we remember why we're out here. Our pain is short-term; their pain is long-term."

The water temperature hovered in the mid-50s and a cold drizzle fell from a gray sky as men and women in wet suits gathered on Gandy Beach. With a war chant of "Hoo-yah!" they set off across the bay to Tampa's Picnic Island.

Kayakers watched over them for the one- to two-hour swim. The toughest part comes halfway across, when the bay's shipping channel brings a river of colder water from the deep sea.

"It wasn't so bad at first. But in the middle of the channel, the temperature dropped. You just keep pushing on," said Ricardo Valdivia, a competitive swimmer from Miami who finished the fastest, in an hour and three minutes.

"You're fighting the wind," said swimmer Ray Becker of Sarasota. "The waves coming at you, they really chop up your stroke."

A few swimmers had to be fished out of the drink, but the vast majority finished.

"It's one of the hardest things I've done in my life," said Jay Gallagher, a Valrico computer programmer and triathlete. "I can't wait for next year."

As exhausted, red-faced swimmers came ashore, they were offered beer and cookies and commemorative sweatshirts. On the back of the sweatshirts was the race's motto: Never leave a man behind.

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4160.

>> on the web

Frogman Swim

For more information, visit tampabayfrogman.com.

Dozens brave chilly Tampa Bay waters to help wounded, fallen Navy SEALs and families 01/02/11 [Last modified: Sunday, January 2, 2011 10:10pm]

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