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Swimmers cross Tampa Bay to raise money for families of wounded SEALs

The sun had been in the sky for only an hour Sunday when 150 men and women dove into Tampa Bay for a 3.1-mile swim from Gandy Beach to Picnic Island.

Now in its fourth year, the Tampa Bay Frogman Swim has evolved from a casual happening to an organized event so popular with local athletes that it has a waiting list. The swim raises money for the families of wounded Navy SEALs. Organizers said that this year's event brought in about $200,000.

In 2010, a group of friends sent an email asking other swimmers to join them in an open-water swim to raise money for a Navy SEAL officer who had been wounded in Afghanistan. Undeterred by frigid water, 37 people showed up. The next year, 67. Then 120.

Many participants are former members of the military, but over the years the Frogman Swim has drawn a range of swimmers from Olympic athletes to high school students. The fastest ones make it across the bay in under an hour.

A former Navy deep-sea diver, Chris Quilty of St. Petersburg has raced in Frogman four times. For experienced swimmers, the challenge lies less in the mileage than in fighting the current and cold water, he said. The first year, the current pushed some swimmers a quarter of a mile off-course.

On Sunday, the water was 68 degrees and unusually welcoming compared with years past, when the water temperature has dipped below 50.

A first-time Frogman swimmer, wetsuit-clad Amy King, 43, of Dunedin admitted she was nervous.

"My dad was a Big Ten football player and he always said if you're not nervous, you're not ready," she said.

At 8:20 a.m., at the sound of a horn, the first wave of swimmers began racing through the water, followed five minutes later by the second wave. A kayaker accompanies each swimmer in case anyone should need rescuing.

Olympic hopeful Becca Mann posted the best time of the day, completing the swim faster than some less-fit people can jog that distance — 56 minutes, 48 seconds. Mann is 15 years old.

"It was a really cool and interesting swim," she said. "It got really choppy in the middle (of the bay). And I couldn't see the buoys. So I had no idea where I was going."

Still, that apparently provided no difficulty for Mann, who swims with the Clearwater Aquatic Team and lives in Belleair Beach.

Swimmers said conditions were great on Sunday, though choppy waters and a current provided a bigger challenge than near-perfect weather suggested.

Thomas O'Connor, 18, of Oldsmar finished second in the men's division, reaching Picnic Island just a short distance behind winner Caleb Hudak, who is 16. Hudak, of Seminole, posted a time of 56 minutes, 50 seconds.

O'Connor said he wants to be a Navy SEAL. He started swimming seriously just three years ago after deciding he didn't have the skill for landlubber sports like basketball and soccer. He decided on swimming.

"I took to it like a duck in water," he said. "It just seemed natural."

As to his desire of becoming an elite SEAL, O'Connor said, "I just want to be on the best team in the world and be part of something bigger than myself."

Times staff writer William R. Levesque contributed to this report. Anna M. Phillips can be reached at aphillips@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779.

Swimmers cross Tampa Bay to raise money for families of wounded SEALs 01/13/13 [Last modified: Sunday, January 13, 2013 10:15pm]
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