ST. PETERSBURG — When 14-year-old Thomas Jessop III told his friends he planned to bike across the country this summer, they thought he would quickly give up the crazy idea.
Jessop proved them wrong, in a big way.
On Friday afternoon, he rolled into St. Petersburg on his bike, completing a nearly 3,500-mile trek from his hometown of Santa Barbara, Calif.
Along the way, Jessop and his family have raised about $6,500 for Santa Barbara's Safe Parking Program, which provides permits for people who live in their cars to be able to park overnight in unused parking lots.
The journey, which began in June, also has been training for Jessop, who plans to compete in Sunday's national IronKids triathlon championship race.
"I'm feeling great," Jessop said Friday while hanging out at downtown's Demens Landing. "It's personally astounding to me that I did this."
Jessop's journey began a couple of years ago, when he saw an Ironman competition on TV. He made up his mind he wanted to be an athlete, and started training and riding with a group of local elite cyclists.
On May 23, he completed his first IronKids competition in San Diego. He knew he wanted to do more.
His dad, a 56-year-old disabled Navy veteran and former businessman, joked that he should just bike to the rest of this year's contests around the country.
"That started the conversation," Jessop said. "From there, we went, 'Well, maybe we could do this.' "
Two weeks later, the family — Jessop, brother David, dad Jess and their three dogs — set off. Jessop would bike an average of 70 to 100 miles a day, while the rest of the crew followed along in the family's modified 30-foot blue bus with a sun painted on the side and a 1983 VW Vanagon welded to the top. The family has lived in the vehicle for the past six years by choice.
There were plenty of bumps and bruises.
Shortly after he finished two other IronKids races in Colorado, Jessop was riding along the road in Denver when a motorist cut him off. The teen went through the vehicle's back window, breaking his wrist and busting his lip. The family stayed in the area for about a month while he recuperated.
But even that wasn't the toughest day, Jessop said.
That came a little earlier, when he pedaled 112 miles one day through the desert on his way to Las Vegas.
"That was probably the hardest day," he said.
And as for his trek along the Gulf Coast, through Pensacola, along U.S. 98 and finally down U.S. 19? "So far I've been loving all of Florida," he said.
Kameel Stanley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.