In the fall of 1997, Ron Collins called me with a crazy question. ¶ The 35-year-old distance swimmer from Clearwater wanted to know if anybody had ever swam the length of Tampa Bay. ¶ "Not that I know of," I recall telling him. ¶ He laughed and said something like, "Good. Then I will be the first." ¶ I thought about advising him to seek psychiatric counseling. Then I remembered that he was the only one of my friends that I didn't have to bribe to swim across the bay with me a few months earlier on my birthday. ¶ It was a cold, windy November day when we left Gandy Beach for Picnic Island. Collins was the first man across. When the rest of us finally made it, he wanted to swim back.
On April 15, 1998, Collins put together a crew to help him swim from the Sunshine Skyway Bridge to the Courtney Campbell Parkway.
"I have been training for 25 years," he said the morning of the history-making swim. "I have no doubt that I will finish. We're not going for speed. We're going for distance."
Collins made it with no problem, covering the 24-mile course in 9 hours, 52 minutes, the last 100 yards or so butterfly.
Randy Nutt, an accomplished open-water swimmer from South Florida, summed it up best that day: "Some people are dreamers, others are doers. Ron Collins is both."
Word of the Collins' feat spread quickly. Soon others wanted to duplicate his epic swim. So Collins started a Web site — DistanceMatters.com — and a race was eventually born.
Though Collins, now the race director, never swam the event again, he went around Manhattan in 2002, then conquered the English Channel in 14 hours, 6 minutes in 2004.
His Tampa Bay race grows bigger each year. People come from all around the world to test themselves in the fickle waters of Tampa Bay, and Saturday will be no exception.
In November 1998, six months after Collins swam the bay, open-water swimming champion Gail Rice, at left, a 42-year-old from Miami Shores, became the first woman to complete the 24-mile swim.
Rice, swimming solo as well, did it in a time that still stands as the women's course record: 8 hours, 34 minutes, 24 seconds.
"The participation of such a highly credentialed swimmer confirmed that other swimmers from across the world would be interested in swimming Tampa Bay," Collins said recently. "We decided to hold the event each year on Earth Day to celebrate the renourishment of Florida's largest estuary. It's also a time of year when the weather and water temperatures are mild, not to mention the fact that there is less 'wildlife activity.' "
Hail to the king
Dave Parcells of Connecticut loved the Tampa Bay race and finished the swim six years in a row (1999-2004), the most crossings for any swimmer.
The first time he did it in 10 hours, 4 minutes. Two years later he shaved more than an hour off his time, then later that summer he became the oldest person, at age 44, to complete a two-way English Channel swim.
In 2005, his swim was cut short at the St. Petersburg Pier (9 miles) due to inclement weather. Parcells, at left, took 2006 off to rest, then last year Parcells withdrew after 9 miles.
He got onto his escort boat and traveled about 15 minutes along the shoreline toward a boat ramp when he collapsed. Despite the efforts of his crew and rescue workers, Parcells died after suffering a heart attack.
Today, among the tight-knit group of open-water swimmers, Parcells will always be known as the King of Tampa Bay.
The man and woman who have made the swim from England to France the most times are known as the king and queen of the English Channel. In 2002, the reigning king, Kevin Murphy, entered the Tampa Bay Marathon Swim, but was forced to withdraw within 2 miles of the finish line because his escort boat could not continue due to darkness.
The Queen of the English Channel is Alison Streeter, who holds the overall record with 43 successful crossings. In 2003, Streeter entered the Tampa Bay race as a relay participant and was impressed by the beauty of the bay after seeing several dolphin and stingray.
Some marathon swimmers go for speed, and then there are some who just want to finish. Laura Colette, 39, of San Jose, Calif., returned to Tampa Bay one year after completing the swim in 2002 (13 hours, 20 minutes).
At the 2003 race, she endured severe intestinal pains and a strong outgoing tide but eventually finished. In doing so, her time was the longest ever for a successful completion of the event — 14 hours, 23 minutes.
"Marathon swimmers don't say that, 'she swam the slowest,' " Collins said. "Instead, they say, 'She swam the longest,' because it's swimming the distance that matters most."
Never too young
The race has been sanctioned each year by United States Masters Swimming, which is open to participants 18 and older. In 2001 and 2002, the race was also sanctioned by United States Swimming, which allowed younger participants to enter.
A group of teenagers, some as young as 15, from the Bolles School in Jacksonville, set the course record for a relay, finishing in 7 hours, 30 minutes. That topped their own 2001 mark of 8 hours, 45 minutes.
Or too old
The oldest to complete the event was St. Petersburg Masters swimmer Dr. Konrad Euler, who in 2002 at age 66 finished the course in 13 hours, 9 minutes.
Euler had tried to swim the event three times before. Euler continues to swim the event as a relay swimmer.
Miami's Chris Derks was already a world-class marathon swimmer when he entered his first Tampa Bay Marathon Swim in 1999.
He was the overall winner for the first four competitive races from 1999 to 2002. He currently holds the course record for a solo swimmer, completing the 2002 race in 7 hours, 41 minutes.