Ron Collins didn't wear a wet suit because of the flotation it would have provided. The bay temperature was 74. [Times photo: Bill Serne]
Bay swimmer puts in a lengthy day
By TERRY TOMALIN
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 16, 1998
ST. PETERSBURG -- Ron Collins didn't want to miss happy hour.
"There's a party at Whiskey Joes," the 35-year-old Clearwater man said. "I can't be late."
With that, Collins entered the water near the Sunshine Skyway bridge Wednesday morning, his coach and an official timer following in kayaks, and started swimming toward a drink with his name on it 24 miles away.
The marathon swim, the first of its kind in Tampa Bay, took the masters athlete the length of the shipping channel.
"I just want to bring some attention to the sport," he said. "There are a lot of great young swimmers out there making waves. This is for them."
Last year Collins helped organize the first Tampa Bay Open Water Challenge, a 3.5-mile sprint across the bay to help raise money for the environmental group BayWatch.
Organizers hoped to draw 100 swimmers to the May event and were surprised when more than twice that number showed up. This year they expect 400 swimmers to make the crossing from St. Petersburg's Gandy Beach to Tampa's Picnic Island.
The water temperature Wednesday was a cool 74 degrees, but Collins did not wear a wet suit. The rubber gives a swimmer extra flotation, and thereby an unfair advantage, and Collins wanted to do it alone.
"This is a pure swim," said Randy Nutt, one of Collins' support crew. "No toys. No gimmicks. Just a man and the water."
Collins, an investment banker, was not intimidated by the distance. He had completed the 12.5-mile swim around Key West before and saw doubling the distance as a natural progression.
"Anybody can swim the first 12 miles," he said confidently at a 9 a.m. news conference. "The last 12 miles is the hard part. That I can do."
Collins, who trains with the Clearwater Aquatic Team Masters at the Long Center, said he has been preparing his whole life for this event.
"I've been training for 25 years," he said before the swim. "I'm have no doubt that I will finish. We're not going for speed. We're going for distance."
The swim from the Skyway to the Whiskey Joes restaurant on the Courtney Campbell Parkway is about 3 miles longer than crossing the English Channel, where the water temperature was about 50 degrees Wednesday.
Although Collins is no stranger to cold water (he swam across Tampa Bay last November when the water temperature was 65 degrees), he prefers Florida's more temperate climate.
Collins, who usually competes in the butterfly event at swim meets, swam freestyle the entire way at a pace of roughly 100 yards every minute and 30 seconds.
His coach, Kelly Allen, and Nutt carefully monitored Collins' fluid and food intake.
"We've got lots of water and Snickers bars," Nutt said. "Real high-tech."
Collins hoped to complete the swim in nine hours. At 6:30 p.m. he was within sight of Whiskey Joes, where a crowd had gathered on the deck to cheer him on.
"Go, Ron, go," they yelled, which was a bit kinder than what his coach and crew said on the water.
"I don't know how many times I yelled "Swim you b------!' which is what they say to English Channel swimmers who want to quit," Allen explained. "He kept going."
But Collins didn't need any help. When he crossed underneath the Howard Frankland Bridge, he picked up speed. A pod of dolphins came by and paid him a visit, but he didn't notice.
With the crowd cheering and the end in sight, Collins switched to butterfly for the last hundred yards.
He finished in 9 hours and 52 minutes.
"You are the man, Ron," Allen said. "You are the man!"
Nutt, 38, an accomplished distance swimmer himself, summed it up best.
people are dreamers, others are doers. Ron Collins is both."
"Swim, you bastard. " "Coach" Kelley Allen, Tampa, FL
-Swim into history-
Thursday April 16, 1998
ST. PETERSBURG - Sporting Silly Putty for ear plugs, a melon-shaped blue cap and a size 34 tag peeking out from the back of his black suit, Ron Collins plunged into 74-degree water.
Collins was about to swim his way into Tampa Bay history.
On Wednesday, the 35-year-old investment broker became the first swimmer to make the 24-mile arch up the coast from south St. Petersburg to Clearwater.
"I'm pretty numb," Collins said after his feat, which included an energized outburst of difficult butterfly strokes the last few minutes.
Traveling from the Sunshine Skyway bridge at 9:05 a.m., he passed the St. Petersburg Pier about 1 p.m., where the current finally gave him a break. Collins freestyled under the area's two monster commuter bridges to reach the Courtney Campbell Parkway at 6:57 p.m., less than an hour behind his planned arrival time.
Official time: 9 hours, 52 minutes and 1 second.
Coach Kelly Allen was enthused about the swim, despite the extra time in the water. "The last mile he slowed way down, which brought us in a little late," explained Allen, who worked one of two kayaks that bookcased Collins to keep him on course.
To know the water yuppie Collins is to know two lifestyles.
His brown hair tinged with chlorine yellowish-green from morning workouts at Clearwater's The Long Center, Collins admits he's not the usual focused athlete.
He's quick to show off photographs of his 2-year-old son, Matthew, and speak proudly of his wife, Lea Ann, a vice president at SunTrust Bank. And he does have swimmer's credentials, with 25 years of swimming competitively.
But the stocky Collins, weighing 192 pounds pre-swim and 185 afterward, doesn't allude to any man vs. nature challenge as the reason for the marathon swim.
Instead, he's a man seeking a good time. After his swim and kissing his family, he reached for a swig from a waiting champagne bottle. "It's a great reason to have a party at Whiskey Joe's with my friends," he said of the swim.
For someone about to swim an endurance-testing distance - his previous feat was 12.5 miles in Key West - his approach was surprisingly nonchalant. On the eve of the marathon, his meal, he said, consisted of "chicken wings, ice cream, beers and something else." "He showed up at my house last night at 10:30," said neighbor Chris Hannukainen, who stood by the shoreline to wish him well. "And I wondered, "Why isn't he asleep?' " During the swim, Collins was fueled by Snickers candy bars and freshwater - consumed while choppy waves pounded at his face.
He joked after coming out of the water about his slurred speech. "My tongue is swollen," he said after hosing off the dirty raccoon eyes from the goggles and the debris in the saltwater.
"I'm used to drinking saltwater," said Collins a week before his record swim. Having just returned from a few practice laps in the bay, Collins was sockless and tieless in the plush conference room at Lawson Financial Corp., where he's worked the past seven years. A varsity swimmer at Virginia Tech who graduated in 1985, he refers to himself as a "sponger," meaning he's adept on a boogie board.
"The swimming doesn't get you tired," he added, explaining that his main concerns were the weather, which turned out perfect, and touching bottom, which didn't happen, thanks to navigator Peter Clark, director of Tampa Baywatch, an environmental group.
Collins' swim, certified by the International Swimming Hall of Fame and sanctioned by U.S. Masters Swimming as a marathon solo swim, is a prelude to the May 2 three-mile race across Tampa Bay from the Gandy Beach to Picnic Island. Sponsored by Baywatch, entry forms are available by calling (813) 896-5320.
Collins plans to participate.
Asked if he'll sit and relax behind his office desk today, Collins, walking with a limp, answered, "Yeah, right."