BRANDON — Juan Carlos La Verde was swimming in Lake Thonotosassa when he hit something hard.
“It all happened very quickly, but I remember feeling the scales, the tongue and the teeth of this huge animal that looked like a Jurassic beast,” said La Verde, 34.
La Verde, an Oldsmar firefighter, was training for a sporting event. The Colombian-born triathlete owns an outdoor adventure and motivational company, Defeat-X, which was planning a competition in November.
An assistant was flying a drone and filming his training as part of a promotional video at the natural lake about 20 miles from downtown Tampa.
La Verde, a former U.S. Air Force pararescue, said he felt teeth pierce his skull, upper body and face. He heard a popping sound — his jaw snapped.
“I never saw the alligator coming at me,” said La Verde, who used to wear his hair long and was swimming without goggles.
In a recent interview with the Times, La Verde said the Aug. 3 attack lasted mere seconds. The alligator was about 12 feet long.
“I was able to open her mouth and swim away,” he said. “God gave me the ability.”
The drone footage shows La Verde swimming as a large alligator plows through the water from the opposite direction, crashing into him head-on.
La Verde doesn’t know why the animal let him go. But he knew that he had to swim fast. He raced to a nearby dock. His life was still in danger.
“I swam and I didn’t stop until I got to the dock of a house that was across from where the attack happened,” he said.
La Verde walked out of the lake. He saw two kids in a backyard and asked for help. The kids called their mother, who dialed 911.
Though he was quickly losing blood, La Verde asked the family to drive him to the lake entrance to tell the drone pilot what had happened.
Shortly after, La Verde called 911 to provide further details.
La Verde was transported by ambulance to Tampa General Hospital.
In the emergency room, doctors performed a six-hour craniotomy to remove part of his temporal lobe and jaw surgery to keep it shut. La Verde, whose hair is now shaved, ended up with severe facial nerve damage on his right side and multiple injuries to his back and shoulders.
He was in the hospital for 10 days.
“Sometimes we don’t understand why things happen,” La Verde said. “But I know there is an explanation.”
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La Verde knows he faces a long recovery. He will need at least one reconstructive surgery to place a plate over his brain.
A GoFundMe page that was started to help the family with expenses had reached more than $62,600 by Thursday.
Even in Florida, alligator attacks are rare. The chance of being seriously injured during an unprovoked alligator incident is roughly one in 3.1 million. At least four people have died in the state from alligator attacks over the last decade, according to the commission.
At least 20 alligator bite incidents have been reported to date this year in the state of Florida. Efforts to thoroughly analyze each incident to determine whether an alligator was involved and if it was provoked or not are ongoing, said Officer Forest Rothchild, a spokesperson for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Southwest Region. Last year, 21 bite incidents were reported, but only nine involved alligators and were unprovoked, according to the commission.
Brandon Fisher, an alligator expert and director of media relations at Gatorland, an Orlando theme park and wildlife preserve since 1949, said it’s important to be cautious in this state where the alligator population is about 1.3 million.
“Alligators can be dangerous, especially in certain times of the year like the nesting or the hatching season when female alligators can be very protective,” said Fisher.
La Verde said he should have been more careful that day and inspected the lake and its surroundings. He should have been wearing goggles and a swim cap to cover his long hair, but he forgot to bring them along.
“Every time I don’t mitigate the risk, I suffer the consequences,” La Verde said. “I threw things to the wind, and it was serious for me. I’ve got to learn that lesson.”
As a man of faith, La Verde said he never lost hope of surviving the attack.
“Perseverance and joy. With that spiritual gift, I was able to survive.”