with Tracy Collett at the start of the 2018 Tampa Bay Frogman Swim.
After a very lazy fall and winter, I decided to jump-start my 2018 with a race I have great passion for - for the charity as well as the physical challenge. I completed the Tampa Bay Frogman Swim which is a fundraiser for the Navy SEAL Foundation. This year, 2018, would be my third year entering this 5k swim. My first attempt was 2014, and to date, the only DNF of my almost 34-year career of racing in a variety of events. So, before we move forward, let’s go back four years.
Hypothermia is no joke! In retrospect, I have learned to have a great deal of respect for the specific challenges of any athletic event. Doing my homework before jumping into a new challenge is something we all know we should do, but rarely do.
The short story is, Tampa Bay is quite cold in January (like sub 60 degrees cold) A lack of fitness and insufficient understanding of the level of challenge of the event was a recipe for near disaster in 2014. I toed the line back then, in a sleeveless wetsuit (photo below), having very little swimming in the months leading up to the event.
I made it about 4200 meters of that 5000-meter swim and although I had experienced the symptoms of hypothermia beginning about 15 minutes into the swim, I was either too stupid or too stubborn to quit. I was cold from the inside, I couldn’t hold my fingers together, my face was so cold I couldn’t move my mouth and lips well enough to form words that were understood, and I began viewing my swimming body from above the water. I was so very fortunate to have an expert kayak escort who, when I informed her I was not in a good place, immediately recognized the signs and symptoms of a cold water injury. She signaled to a rescue boat and I was taken quickly to shore and attended to by medics.
I came back the next year with a long sleeve wetsuit and neoprene beanie and finished the swim in a pretty speedy time and felt fantastic and redeemed. My kayak escort was a good friend, and we exchanged a couple of words and smiles along the way and had a very different day than in 2014. Redemption felt good and raising money for a charity sweetened the pot.
2015, winning the Above and Beyond Award after a disastrous 2014
The focus of 2016 was the Paralympics in Rio and 2017 seemed like a good year to take a break, but truth be told, I missed this swim. I missed the cause, I missed the people, and I missed the challenge. So, in August of 2017, I signed up for 2018’s swim. FYI, the swim only allows 150 swimmers and it fills in appx 30 minutes. (Put it on your list, it’s a great event)
Full disclosure, my late 2017 and early 2018 were not great. My mother received a terminal diagnosis and my world came crashing down. My mother was the person who taught me to swim and had been physically active her entire life and long before working out and fitness were in vogue. My mom was 6-foot-tall and all legs. She had been a recreational swimmer for as long as I could remember and was still attending water aerobics at 76 years of age. I credit her with lighting a competitive spirit within me.
One of my favorite stories happened a couple months after having my leg amputated. I was back in the water and just started to figure out how to adapt my swim with one-half less leg. My mom challenged me to a race. Breast Stroke! I laughed. First off, she had 36-inch inseam legs. Now she wanted to race someone with one 30-inch leg and one 20-inch leg and no foot! Ha! We both laughed and I think it was then she fully realized I was going to be just fine.
She was my biggest supporter and fan. She was also my favorite person to have along on vacation. Most recently she shared Spring Break in the Keys with my son and me. She was slowing down and weakening then, unable to swim in the ocean with us, but still, I loved that we had her with us. I would learn after her passing while going through her house, that she had printed out and saved many emails and letters I had written about my athletic events. She had printed photos I posted on Facebook, and she never forgot me mentioning a race I had upcoming.
I had signed up for IRONMAN Arizona in 2017. I had stopped mentioning my events in the past few years, as other things became more important in my conversations with her (my son, my sisters, neighborhood friends, extended family, her health, would she consider a moving in with me, etc). Mom, however, never missed even a short few words of something I might consider doing. I stopped mentioning IMAZ when she was diagnosed, hoping she wouldn’t remember. Of course, she did. Early in November, she asked me about it. Truth be told, I was terribly challenged even finding the motivation to complete a 20 minute run with my active dog since mom’s diagnosis. Watching my once strong and vibrant mom grow leaner and frailer, turned me into an emotional wreck. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I was consumed with grief over her health and nothing else seemed interesting or important. I simply said, “I haven’t really made enough time to appropriately train. Maybe next year I will be better prepared."
Mom passed at the end of November and December was filled with settling her estate, the holidays, and maybe 5 half-hearted swims. January was fast-approaching and I was pretty close to not swimming. I managed a few legit swim workouts early in January and figured I owed it to myself, my mom, and many family members of fallen Navy SEALs to suffer in the cold waters of Tampa Bay for 5000 meters, for their sacrifice had been so much greater.
I flew to Tampa on the Friday before the swim. It has been unusually cold in many parts of our country, and Florida was no exception. I think the organizers stopped sending email updates with the water temperatures because hearing it was only going to make the swimmers more anxious. They did proclaim anyone who remained in the water more than two hours would be pulled out for safety reasons. I couldn’t disagree with their decision and vowed to not be anywhere close to that time.
My kayak escort was a long time Army friend who is stationed in Tampa. We go back many years. She was my last running buddy before I lost my leg. She was with me in the hospital for my amputation and a huge encouragement as I figured out how to walk and run again. She knew of my cold swim experience in 2014 and was incredibly vigilant. She studied the route and current and was definitely more prepared than me on the morning of the swim. I had a good chat with a co-worker who was a former Navy SEAL and had lots of cold water swim experience. He recommended wax ear plug to keep any cold water out of my ears that could make me colder.
So, race morning, I donned a long sleeve wetsuit, neoprene beanie and wax in my ears. I also wore a Saint Rita medallion (my mom’s name). I found it in mom’s jewelry box while cleaning her house. I had never seen it before. I thought it appropriate to bring mom along for the swim. While not Catholic, I found it no coincidence Saint Rita is the Patron Saint of the impossible. As I stood on water’s edge (which was pretty darn cold) I was thinking this swim, with my lack of training, could fall into the near impossible category.
After the posting of the flag, the playing of the National Anthem, a prayer, and the reading of all the names of Navy Special Operations Sailors we have lost since 9-11, the first wave of swimmers entered the water. Five months prior when I entered, I submitted my estimated swim time, which now seemed laughable. I probably really belonged in Wave 3 or 4 or 5, not 1, but here I was. The horn was sounded and off we went. I swam hard for the first 10 or so minutes because I wanted to get warm. The first mile of the swim is generally shallow, so warm in the grand scheme of temperatures (57 degrees as we would later learn). I didn’t allow myself to look at my Garmin until about one mile in when we reached the sandbar. The sandbar is about 200 meters long and less than 2 feet deep. Many swimmers get up and walk, shuffling to scare the stingrays away. The one-legged lady just kept swimming. In fact, I channeled my inner Dory and “kept swimming and swimming and swimming."
My stroke, as I continued was deteriorating. It was getting short and I was dropping my elbow a bit and starting to tense up my traps and neck. I would remind myself to relax and focus on a few key phrases to keep my stroke efficient: finish your stroke; make your lats do the work; relax your head, it won’t fall off. I did notice my little pinky finger on my left hand would not stay pressed into my ring finger, no matter how I tried to move it. It was just cold. Not scary cold, not dangerously cold, but cold. I also noticed as I tried to run my tongue over my upper gums, I could not. My lips were just sort of stuck from being cold.
My mind would drift for a bit back to my swim in 2014. Mom and my son were there waiting for me. When they saw my frigid state and my rush to the medical tent I felt terrible because I knew I had them both terribly worried. I have found we stop thinking our parents worried too much the day we have our own kids. Then we really get it. In 2018, however, in my mind, mom was watching me swim, just from a seat with a better view of it all. She was sitting with my dad and they were not worried. Saint Rita gently reminded me she was with me. I didn’t put on enough Body Glide and I had this little chaffing feeling around my neck. I knew that small discomfort in the water was going to be pretty uncomfortable for the few days following the swim, but that wasn’t really my focus at the time.
My friend navigated a near perfect route, and we only added a few extra meters from getting pushed a bit off course from the final buoy past the shipping channel. We could both now see the shore, and it appeared I was going to finish this swim, tired and slow, but certainly with lots of emotion and positive energy.
Lots of families and friends were on the shore, as well as a warming tent, and warm refreshments. I swam until the water was too shallow to swim and then was helped to hop to my prosthesis and walked through the finishing chute.
photo credit: Tracy Collett
I felt surprisingly fantastic. I wasn’t cold and although tired, definitely invigorated. Most importantly, though, I played a small role in raising over $600K for the Navy SEAL Foundation.
I thought of mom. I knew she was looking down and proud. The woman who taught me to swim has kept me swimming and I suspect she always will.