Tampa Bay Frogman Swim raises funds, awareness of fallen SEALs

As the sun rises over Old Tampa Bay on Sunday, swimmers take to the water for the eighth annual Frogman Swim, a 3.1-mile event that honors Navy SEALs. Participants swim from Gandy Beach to Picnic Island.
As the sun rises over Old Tampa Bay on Sunday, swimmers take to the water for the eighth annual Frogman Swim, a 3.1-mile event that honors Navy SEALs. Participants swim from Gandy Beach to Picnic Island.
Published Jan. 16, 2017

Just 63 minutes after jumping into the water at Gandy Beach, Sean Doolittle, 14, emerged 3.1 miles east on Picnic Island.

He was the first of some 175 swimmers to reach the finish line in the eighth annual Tampa Bay Frogman Swim.

"The current was a little strong," said Doolittle, an eight-grader at St. Paul Catholic School in St. Petersburg. "But I kept my focus on the Gold Star families who we came out to support, and I was able to finish."

For the Doolittles, the swim was a family affair. About an hour after the first Doolittle made it out of the water, his father, Navy Capt. John Doolittle, made it across Old Tampa Bay. His other children, Meg, 9, and Ryan, 12, served as volunteers while his wife, Katie, was a timekeeper.

Capt. Doolittle was swimming on behalf of Nick Spehar, a Navy SEAL who was one of 30 U.S. service members killed on Aug. 6, 2011, when their helicopter was shot down by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The event honors those who lost their lives in combat or in training. Of those killed on the helicopter, there were seven families in attendance.

"It was a true honor," said Capt. Doolittle, who runs the Preservation of the Force and Family resilience program at U.S. Special Operations Command, whose headquarters are at MacDill Air Force Base. "I got to meet the family at a dinner last night. It means a lot for me to be able to come out here and take part in this swim."

• • •

The first streaks of daylight etched across a cloudy horizon as Cecil Johnson stood in the shallow surf of Gandy Beach and readied his kayak.

Johnson, 48, of Tampa was paddling to support his wife, Joanne Johnson, 31, who was getting ready for her first Frogman Swim.

On Aug. 6, 2011, the couple, Air Force officers at the time, were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Cecil Johnson was at Balad Air Base in Iraq. Joanne Johnson was in Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.

"I saw it on screen as it was happening and the recovery," Cecil Johnson said of the helicopter shoot-down, the worst single loss of live in the history of SOCom.

"It was very emotional," said Joanne Johnson, who didn't see the incident but experienced the aftermath while stationed in Afghanistan.

An experienced triathlete, Joanne Johnson works at SOCom in the acquisition department.

"I wanted to do something that was more than me just being tired at the end," she said of her reason to take part in an event that has raised more than $2 million over the years for the Navy SEAL Foundation.

• • •

Just before the horn sounded for the first of seven waves of swimmers and kayakers to hit the water, race director Rory O'Connor bounced around the sand, taking care of last-minute details.

Of the many important issues for the day, one thing he wanted to make clear, and a point taken up by everyone who talked about the swim, was the aura of sadness hanging over an otherwise near-perfect day.

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"We do this with heavy hearts," said O'Connor., a former Navy SEAL. "We really miss Terry."

O'Connor was referring to Terry Tomalin, the late Tampa Bay Times outdoors editor who along with former SEAL Dan O'Shea and high school student Sam Farnan started the race in 2010 as a way to raise money for Navy SEAL Lt. Dan Cnossen, who lost both legs above his knee in 2009 after he stepped on an improvised explosive device.

What started as a hastily created swim has turned into a well-organized event that has become one of the world's best open water charity swims, thanks in no small part to the energy and enthusiasm displayed by Tomalin. He was 55 when he died in May.

• • •

His wet suit still dripping, John Doolittle hugged his family and, like so many others, paid tribute to Tomalin as well as the Gold Star families.

"My good friend Terry Tomalin was a key piece of this swim," said Capt. Doolittle, who spends his days making sure commandos and their families get the mental, physical and spiritual help they need. "He was a force of nature."

Contact Howard Altman at or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.