Friday, December 15, 2017
Events

With a veteran as parade grand marshal, Gasparilla moves away from celebrity hosts

Romulo "Romy" Camargo isn't a professional athlete, comedian, beloved 1990s TV star or the basis for a movie about his exploits. He's a quadriplegic veteran from New Tampa who was wounded in Afghanistan.

And he's the 2016 Gasparilla Parade of Pirates grand marshal.

This marks a turn away from the celebrities and athletes who have helmed Tampa's most raucous event most recently, from actor Jim Belushi to former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Mike Alstott.

"The biggest thing we wanted was to select someone local — an American hero — but someone local who could inspire the community," said Nikki Yourison, public relations manager for the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, the parade and festival's title sponsor.

Organizers started to look in the direction of distinguished community members in 2015 by splitting grand marshal duties between Extra host and Saved by the Bell star Mario Lopez and MacDill Air Force Base's U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. Chris Faris, who was part of the mission that spawned the book and film Black Hawk Down.

The parade's love for celebrity hosts stretches throughout its more-than-100-year history. Roy Rogers, Dale Evans and even Woody Woodpecker have held the ceremonial title, said Darrell Stefany, owner of festival organizer EventFest.

Hard Rock became a title sponsor in 2010 and has held the position every year except 2013. The contract gives it the right to put forth nominees for grand marshal to the parade committee, Stefany said.

"There isn't always a grand marshal, but we've decided that we do want to, going forward, to have someone in that position every year," Stefany said.

When it came time to choose this year's grand marshal, Yourison said, the selection committee turned to local organizations and came up with a short list of inspiring people who represent Tampa Bay's achievements.

Camargo, 40, graduated from Crystal River High School in 1993, enlisted in the Army and rose to the rank of chief warrant officer 3, before a bullet to the neck paralyzed him during his third tour of duty in Afghanistan in 2008.

He returned to Tampa Bay with bleak prognoses.

"They said I'd never be able to breathe on my own again," Camargo said.

Now, he breathes without assistance, pecks out emails on his iPad with a mouth stick and occasionally heads out to Ybor City's Bad Monkey bar for Fireball Whiskey and apple cider with his friends.

Support from his wife, Gabriela, plus stem cell surgery and rehab therapy brought him this far, he said.

In June 2015, the Camargos opened StayInStep, a Tampa spinal cord injury rehab center, to pay forward their fortunes and lessen the commute for those in need. He used to have to travel to Orlando to get therapy twice a week, he said. Now he's able to work out four times a week at StayInStep.

"We've had about 18 clients (since the opening) and it has just been a blessing to be able to work out with people here in Tampa," Camargo said. "We can't promise recovery, but we can promise quality-of-life improvements."

He's excited for the chance to be Gasparilla grand marshal. It'll be his first time attending the parade, he said, as well as a chance to share his testimony about what can be accomplished with hard work and faith.

Plus, he'll get to show off his core workout by sitting upright in his wheelchair while riding in his custom motorcycle sidecar.

Stefany spent the better part of day working out logistics for Camargo's motorcycle, which could possibly overheat with the parade's slow pace.

"We're working hard to find a way to present him on the route so that people can honor him and salute him for his service," he said.

Bead-tossing has been delegated to friend and StayInStep lead trainer Steven Hill, a retired Army medical officer who performed Camargo's tracheotomy in Afghanistan.

"I'd never heard of Gasparilla until I moved here," Hill said. "I thought it was some drink from the Midwest or something."

The Hard Rock is in its final year of the current three-year sponsorship agreement, Yourison said, but there are signs it might be staying on for more parades. Hard Rock officials have already been in talks with EventFest about next year's parade.

Are they ruling out celebrity grand marshals for the future?

"I wouldn't say that," she said. "We work with rock stars. It's just an added bonus, I think, to have a rock star alongside a community hero. You never know what will happen in the future."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Robbyn Mitchell at (813) 226-3373 or [email protected] Follow @RMitchellTimes.

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