It started with a conversation over a cup of coffee.
Sam Farnan, a 17-year-old U.S. Naval Academy hopeful, dreamed of one day becoming a Navy SEAL.
"The cold water is the hardest part," explained his mentor, Cmdr. Dan O'Shea, a reserve SEAL. "You can train in the pool all you want, but it is not like swimming in the ocean."
Farnan, a competitive swimmer at St. Petersburg Catholic High School, saw O'Shea's statement as a challenge.
"So what do I do?" he asked.
"Let's swim across Tampa Bay on New Year's Day," I said, injecting myself into their conversation back in November. "It will be cold and gnarly … everything a SEAL could want."
• • •
O'Shea met Farnan, whose father is an editor at the St. Petersburg Times, four years ago. The SEAL had just returned from Iraq.
"I was giving a speech when afterward this kid walks up and says that he wants to be a SEAL," O'Shea recalled. "I told him that he better start swimming."
Farnan listened and burned off his baby fat. But as the veteran special operations commando explained, it takes more than muscle to be a SEAL.
The Navy SEALs are among the most highly trained professionals in the U.S. military. Their training regimen is legendary; their real world accomplishments seldom publicized.
"Sometimes we don't come home with all our parts," O'Shea said. "Some don't come home at all."
• • •
Farnan and O'Shea have never met Dan Cnossen. In September, the SEAL lieutenant landed in Afghanistan, and 36 hours later, he stepped on a land mine that took off both his legs.
When the Kansas native arrived at the U.S. Naval Academy, he had never seen the ocean and he did not know how to swim. But by the time he left in the spring of 2002, he was an accomplished triathlete. "Life is all about extremes," he liked to tell his friends.
"From what I hear, this guy is a real fighter," O'Shea said as he sipped his coffee. "But I think he is having a hard time."
Farnan's eyes lit up. "We'll do the swim and make it a fundraiser," he said. "I am sure we could get a couple of guys to do the swim."
• • •
Swimming across Tampa Bay is a challenge on a good day. But crossing the bay on one of the coldest days of the year can be downright impossible. The first call went out to Ron Collins, a veteran of the English Channel and founder of the Tampa Bay Marathon Swim.
O'Shea, who changed the date from Jan. 1 to Jan. 3, sent out an e-mail on the SEAL network and Lt. Mark Lampman, another Naval Academy graduate, agreed to organize the effort.
"What did I get myself into?" Lampman said after being besieged by inquiries from all over the country.
All swimmers would also commit to raising at least $500 each. We hoped to get 20 swimmers.
• • •
Sunday morning, as the temperature hovered near freezing, 37 swimmers and 42 kayakers gathered on Gandy Beach. Most wore wet suits, except for Cmdr. John Doolittle of St. Petersburg, who braved the 58-degree water in his Speedo.
Farnan swam despite a severe case of bronchitis. Fifteen-year-old Thomas O'Connor of Oldsmar made the crossing to Picnic Island with his father, Rory. They were joined by St. Pete Masters' swimmers, former Clearwater Beach lifeguards, SEALS from as far away as California and author Randy Wayne White.
The money raised for Cnossen (dancnossen.org) hasn't been totaled, but estimates range in the tens of thousands.
"It's one thing to slap a bumper sticker on your car that says support our troops," said Skip Maxwell of Clearwater's Double Barrel Surf Shop. "It is another to swim across the bay on the coldest day of the year to show you really mean it."
Terry Tomalin can be reached at (727) 893-8808.