When Reagan Quilty was 8 years old, she stood on Gandy Beach one cold January morning in 2010 and watched her father, Chris, swim across Tampa Bay.
Chris Quilty, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, was one of 37 open-water swimmers, lifeguards and former Navy SEALs who braved the 58-degree water to raise money for a man who had just lost his legs in Afghanistan.
"The water was warm compared to the air," said Quilty, who has become the top individual fundraiser for the annual Tampa Bay Frogman Swim. "It was brutal."
Fast forward four years and now Reagan, a top age-group triathlete, has persuaded her father to let her swim beside him Sunday when the fifth annual Tampa Bay Frogman Swim gets under way.
"I am a little worried," confessed Reagan, who at 13 will be the youngest swimmer to enter the 3.1-mile open-water swim. "I have a good wet suit, but I just have to face the fact that I am going to be cold for at least the first 20 minutes."
Reagan, like her father, is also an accomplished fundraiser. The St. Petersburg teen has collected more than $4,000 in pledges for the event, which has raised more than $500,000 in the past five years for the Navy SEAL Foundation.
"I am pretty confident that I will finish," Reagan said. "I know that whatever I go through, it will be nothing compared to what the people I am swimming for have endured."
Chris Quilty and his wife, Karen, both graduated from the Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1989 and were chosen to join the Navy Special Operations. During their careers they worked closely with numerous SEALs but left the military to pursue business and to start a family.
"We have three kids, but Reagan is the only one who expressed an interest in swimming with her dad," explained Karen, who coaches one of Tampa Bay's top youth triathlon teams, Triton Elite Multisport. "Believe it or not, swimming was one of Reagan's weakest events."
The Tampa Bay Frogman Swim, which started off as an impromptu gathering of local water men and women, has developed into one of the best-known open-water swims in the United States.
"The growth has been nothing short of phenomenal," said Kurt Ott, son of a legendary Navy SEAL. "You just never know what to expect — one year it can be sunny and flat and the next cold and raining with 4-foot seas."
In 2010, the race organizers had to beg people to participate. This year, Ott had to shut down registration the first day after 150 swimmers signed up in a matter of hours. Each swimmer pledges to raise at least $1,000. Some, like Chris Quilty, collect 10 times that in donations.
"As a triathlon coach, I have no doubts that Reagan will do just fine," Karen Quilty said. "But as a mom, I still have my reservations."
Reagan's father said he is confident in his seventh-grader's fitness level. "I'm just worried about the cold," he said. "She's just a skinny little girl. It is going to be tough."
Reagan and her father plan to be on St. Petersburg's Gandy Beach early to warm up for the swim to Tampa's Picnic Island.
The swim starts at 8 a.m. Spectators are welcome.
To learn more, go to tampabayfrogman.com.