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by Terry Tomalin

July 19, 2000

"My favorite number has always been 24"

Ron Collins was born May 4, 1962. He has been swimming competitively for 25 years. He was a varsity swimmer at Virginia Tech and graduated in 1985. He has been a bond broker for the past seven years at Lawson Financial Corporation and swims for Clearwater Aquatic Team Masters (CATM) under coach Kelley Allen.

Ron was named a US Masters Long Distance All-American in the 30-34 age group in 1994, and has won Florida open-water events in Jacksonville, Key West, Melbourne, Lake Wales, Lake Weir, as well as a national championship event in Charlottesville, Va.

He was elected Sanctions Chair for the Florida LMSC in 1996. In 1997, he helped organize the first Tampa Bay Open Water Challenge, a 3.5 mile swim across the bay to help raise money for the environmental group BayWatch whose purpose is to protect and preserve the Tampa Bay estuary.

His longest distance until April 1998 was the Victor Swim Around Key West, a 12.5 mile swim where he has won the fin division for 1996 and 1997. On April 15, 1998 he became the first swimmer to attempt and swim the length of Tampa Bay, a 24 mile marathon swim which is two and a half miles longer than the English Channel. "My favorite number has always been 24," Ron said. The course is approximately 41,500 yards and Ron completed it in 9:52.01.

The marathon was certified by the International Swimming Hall of Fame and sanctioned by USMS. Ron said, "Next to my family, I love swimming more than anything else in the whole world." His wife Lea Ann, two-year-old son Matthew and the news media were waiting for him at the finish. Both the Tampa Tribune and the St. Petersburg Times had front page stories.

The following article about the event was published in the St. Petersburg Times: (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, published in the St. Petersburg Times, April 16, 1998.

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's 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 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, Kelley Allen, and Nutt carefully monitored Collins's 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.

"Some people are dreamers, others are doers. Ron Collins is both."

Copyright 1998 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.