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Swim, bike, run, oh my! // PART I: THE SWIM

Here's the problem: For some unexplained reason, you have decided to swim 1,500 meters (nine-tenths of a mile) as part of a triathlon. You aren't allowed to swim in a pool. You have to navigate Tampa Bay and its cigarette butts and pizza coupons.

You also can't swim part way, come back a few days later, and swim some more. All 1,500 meters on the same day.

The sensible thing to do would be to bag the whole idea, rent a Waverunner or some other loud personal watercraft and buzz the wackos who decided to swim.

Or you can get out there with them.

There are two ways to train. First, let's look at Person A, the serious swimmer.

Tony Rivas was always a decent swimmer, but it was your basic survival swimming. Now Rivas, 42, is one of the area's most accomplished triathletes. He is the director of facilities for the Pinellas County School District (he's in charge of all new construction, remodeling and maintenance), and he trains at St. Petersburg's North Shore pool twice a week after work. He usually swims between 2,500 and 3,000 yards each time (about a mile and a half).

"The conditions in the bay are usually not favorable," Rivas said. "Someone once described it as like swimming in a washing machine, so you need to know what you're doing so you don't get hurt.

"You have to learn technique and efficiency, such as learning how to grab the water with your hands."

Rivas, who has finished as high as fourth in his division, is looking forward to the St. Anthony's Triathlon _ except early in the swimming leg where people crawl over each other like shoppers trying to reach the last Tickle Me Elmo.

"I've learned to get toward the front as quickly as possible," he explained. "The biggest thing is not to panic. A lot of people hyperventilate when a fist or a hand comes into their face. You get cut lips, chins ... I've even had people grab my ankles.

"Sometimes it's shoulder to shoulder, and you have to hold your position or they'll swim right over the top of you. It can get crazy."

Speaking of insanity, that brings us to Person B _ the lummox who doesn't train for the event.

How difficult can it be? I thought to myself three years ago. If I get tired, I'll float around with the coupons for a while and then press on.

Only the waves were at least 20 feet high, I had swallowed at least 30 gallons of sea water and the Tarzan impersonator in front of me had just kicked me in the face. Again.

Do I slink home a weenie? Or sleep with the fishes?

Someone on a surfboard pulled alongside and I was towed in to shore like a wounded manatee.

I walked to where the first swimmers were coming out of the water and happened on a friend who had started in my group. When he saw me, his jaw hit the sand.

"How did . . . what the . . . I can't believe . . ." How had human ballast (me) finished ahead of most of the field?

It gets worse. One of my teammates, a woman who would ride the 25-mile cycling leg of the triathlon, jumped on her bike before I could explain what had happened.

The conversation would've gone something like this: "Hi, Mary Jo. First, the good news. I almost drowned. Now the bad news. I was disqualified, which means all the training you and Anne did was for nothing. But boy, did I make great time!"

They both still talk to me.

Go figure.

_ Tom Zucco is no longer allowed to compete in triathlons.