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Sunday, February 26, 2017

Frogman 2017- An Advernture of a Different Kind

Coming into my second year having the opportunity to participate in the Tampa Bay Frogman Swim my excitement level was off the chart, flowed by my nerves in a close second. I guess that's why it took me these past 42 days to write this blog report.
To me Frogman is bigger than those of us who venture into the water. It is bigger than those who kayak beside us. It is bigger than the event. Frogman is about a community supporting a cause greater than us as individuals. It is a moment in time to say thank you for a sacrifice which is greater than many of us will ever know.
It year was unlike last year, starting with training. I spent a lot of time this year swimming open water in not so great conditions- cold, waves, wind, and currents. I was thankful for "warm" pool swims during the week. During my morning commutes, which took me over the bridges the waters were flat, but come the weekend training days the waters would get angry and thrash about. I could have been mad but I just crossed my fingers and hoped that rough days training would equal a smooth event day. This year in training Patrick swam with me often. He braved the cold and being slammed in the face by waves to be there next to me. When the day came when the water dropped below 60 degrees, hovering around 57 degrees, Patrick began to be my swim safety and support form the shore. He would walk back a forth, pacing the beach at my swim stroke, chatting with tourist who would ask why anyone was swimming, and warning kite surfers to not run me over.
With the summer and fall focus on swimming due to the Alligator Lighthouse swim, I was feeling strong in my swimming abilities. I knew this distance would not kill me and I figured it could not be much worse than being sick for seven miles of swimming.
Christmas Day Swim
As the days got closer the weather predictions came into view and they painted a different story than the year before. This year we were looking at clear skies, warmer waters, slight winds. Could this be true? After the 2016 Year of the Twister, I was skeptical of any weather report. I think the event safety manager as as well, since the weather reports emails started earlier, each one reading like it should have ended with multiple smiling faces.
Matthew Kantor
A week out from the race brought the swimmers closer to their purpose for going
in the water, we received the names of those we were swimming for on that day. I would be swimming for Matthew Kantor. Petty Officer 2nd Class SEAL, Matthew Kantor was killed during a gun fight in Zabul Province in November 2012. Petty Officer Kantor moved without hesitation to protect his teammates and mission, this action saved the lives of his team members. This deployment was Petty Officer Kantor's first as a SEAL. All reports noted "without hesitation". Petty Officer Kantor's actions effectively saved the lives of those he was serving along side and he did so without question or hesitation. Like I said earlier this is bigger than we are as individuals.
Race weekend came quickly after the holiday season. A few days before the swim we took the day to go biking, it was sunny, a light breeze, and warm- perfect. The day before was spent checking on the kayak rental and meeting up for a practice swim. This year's practice swim had more people out than we had seen the prior year. We listened to the safety and swim briefings. Then we headed to the water, wetsuits on (well, not Patrick- he is tough). My dad would have his first experience kayaking with swimmers. During the practice he learned what I could see and hear. He learned to yell louder. I learned to spot my stroke. And he learned to avoid the other swimmers. We swam around for a bit, just having fun. After loading up we headed for Korean food, best preevent meal!
On Frogman morning, it was beautiful. In the dark, spotlights lit our way. On the big screen images of SEALs in combat, children giving the pledge of allegiance, SEALs coming home, and the message of why we were all there in the sand watching the sun rise. In front of the big screen sat the photos and stories of SEALs who we represented with bibs and lanyards and heart. Each person you past said good morning and smiled. The volunteers checked in swimmers and kayakers, they lined us up, they helped haul equipment, and then they raised the flags at the shoreline. This moment took my breath away, to see the American and service flags there in the breeze at the shoreline. This moment would be the first of many on this morning when my heart would stand still.
Brian Bill
Patrick aligned his kayak in the Honor Wave. This wave was filled with service men and women and family members of the fallen. Patrick was assigned to Molly. Molly and other of her family members were swimming in memory of Molly's cousin, Brian Bill. Master Chief Petty Officer Bill was killed in August 2011, along with 37 other service members, when the helicopter he was in was shot down in Afghanistan. This event would become the largest loss of life in the military campaign in Afghanistan.
As the morning continued on the sun broke above the water, lighting the sky. The swimmers and kayakers made final preparations. Then they gathered together for one last message. Here we listened to the final swim report, telling us of water temperatures (mid 60's), winds, and the crossing we are about to make. We lined up along the shoreline for one final group photo. There amongst the other swimmers, we smiled, laughed, and patted each other on the back as a statement confirming we would see each other on the other side. I walked back to where Patrick was standing, seeing my parents gathered near my dad's kayak. In that moment again my heart leaped with love. They were here to support not only me but these men whose names we heard, whose faces we saw in photos around us.
Then the day really began. The reading of the fallen SEALs began. Each name, each ranking. Families around us hugged or laid a hand on a shoulder as the heard the name of a loved one. In silence we listened, the winds brushing past us and the sun light breaking through the clouds.
After the names were read the colors were marched out to the start line. Some buzzing and delay occurred, including a false release of the colors, before an announcement was made that there was going to be a change to the process for the National Anthem. Instead of one voice singing there was a request for every voice to sing. The colors again were presenting, then low the words began to take to the air, louder and louder then grew. Not all in key, not all in tempo, not all on the same word- but in that moment we were all together. Hearing the National Anthem sung this way, as a group, is one of my favorite things to hear at race start, I often prefer it to a single singer. Upon the end the Anthem, clapping and hoots broke out. Then the sounds of zipping wetsuits and the snapping of swim caps.
The waves started out one after the next. I kissed Patrick goodbye, as he took out after his swimmer. I stood there with my parents, hugging them both for a minute, before heading the start line (the kayaks would start behind us). As I lined up to start out I spotted my dad among the kayakers gave him a wave to note where I was and to motion that I was changing our plan, I would now be to the inside not the outside of my grouping.
I waved to my mom on shore, gave a thumbs up to my dad, pulled down my goggles, and high fived a guy standing next me. We waited for the horn to go off- then boom, into the cold water we dove. Yes 66 degrees is cold even if you have been swimming in mid-50 degree water.
The first stretch was a little bit of chaos (as expected). I had a kayaker come up to my side who I knew was not my dad. This "wrong" kayaker stayed at my side for a few minutes, until realizing I was not the swimmer he was looking for, he broke from me and quickly seemed on the heels of another swimmer. I flipped to a single back stroke to spot my dad. I again threw a thumbs up as my hand floated through the air. My dad had already spotted me (as he would tell me later) but it was good to have confirmation. From there he stayed by my side as we passed, were passed, and found our place in the line of swimmers taking on the bay that day.
The year before we had not touched the water, now the water surrounded us. There was not a stroke that I didn't think about why I was there and who I represented, SO2 SEAL Matthew Kantor. Also with me, I could feel under my wetsuit taped to me the coins I had received from Petty Officer 2nd Class Danny Dietz's mother the year before. I had worn them when I swam my makeshift Frogman upon returning home after the year's swim was canceled due to weather but it only felt right that morning to have them with me, to carry his memory, as well, across the bay that day.
The water was not flat but it was flatters than the waters back home had been. It would the current which would challenge us the most. Even the kayakers were being pushed south. After heading Northeast for just over a half mile, we turned to go Southeast. You might think- if the current is going south and we needed to go south then this would be perfect. You are sort of incorrect. The problem is the swimmer has to go southward but while staying north and in the buoy line, otherwise you will be way south of the exit at the time of needing to exit. For me the benefit was I had swam similar crossing issues during Escape from Alcatraz years before.
Just after mile one I hit the sand bar, with shallow areas where my finger grazed the grasses. At this time my hands and arms were going numb. The numbness was only on the outside of my arms and my hips were not hurting, which was a good sign. The only sea life I saw during this time was a ray who skated by on the bar, probably trying to figure out what these weird migrating animals were floating over his sandbar. At mile two the sandbar began to drop off, then at about two and half it was gone; we were in the channel, in the darkness. Here the water pulled us, leaving my dad to yell "LEFT" louder and louder, in order to keep me on track. In this segment we passed a group of five swimming together, a band of brothers. It was an amazing sight, each time I turned my head they were there swimming stroke for stroke surrounded by a half a dozen kayaks with the American and SEAL flags attached and waving strongly.
After we passed them, there was silence. It wasn't real silence, it was just that in that moment I knew we were getting close. My dad yelled left, pushing me up toward an even buoy, but all I saw was a channel marker so that's where I headed. Again, there with my body starting to feel the full effects of the cold was my dad. He was guiding me, knowing what was behind and how much further I had to go. It was a role he had played several times in my life, he again was there to push my limits, to offer support, and to ensure if I needed a life line I had one.
All of a sudden my dad's word changed, RIGHT. I looked right and there was the turn buoy. Not only was I nearing the sounds of the finish line, I was making the final turn to land. Now headed true south with the current fully in my favor, my strokes picked up. I was pushing all I had left. My arms tingled each time they hit the water, my kick deepened. I glanced up at my dad once more and I saw him look at the distance ahead and then look at me beside him, he knew the final push was kicking in and that now I knew my path. Pushing to the finish my dad pushed out form me slightly, knowing I was coming up along side other swimmers.
I could spot ahead the final turn buoy. The sand below got closer and closer. I made the final turn. I spotted forward to the beach, that's where I wanted to be. My dad peeled off to the "kayak area". As I was nearing shore other swimmers started to pop up, I continued my swim stroke. I swam till even my short stroke stirred up the sand. I stood with the water mid-shin. The volunteers cheered and high fived as the swimmers crossed the finish line, there names being called in victory along with the nae of those they swam for that day.
Now Patrick will joke at my elbows out finish,a s this is my "norm", but for me in that moment it was so much more it was pushing till the end, pushing till the task was over. I ran past a few other swimmers and across the finish line after 1:45:12 in the water, putting in the middle of the ladies pack.
At the finish were families of the fallen, handing out finisher coins to the swimmers. These family members did not care that we were soaking wet, they didn't mind that when they hugged us or we hugged them that we leaned on them maybe a little more than normal, instead their faces were filled with light and hope and grace.
Also at the finish was my family, Patrick, my mom, and my dad. Patrick hugged me and laughed with me. My dad patted me on the back. My mom went in to full mother mode trying to make sure I had a warm towel or drink or anything I needed- I am pretty sure I could have asked for a cheeseburger right then and she would have found one in her bag! All I wanted was to stand there in that moment surround by those I love most for a cause I deeply believe in- and that's what I got!
As my body warmed we walked to the car loaded the kayak, changed clothes, and headed off to a great party!! During the after party I had to the opportunity to speak with Danny Dietz's mother once again. I introduced myself as a swimmer but more so as a swimmer who was assigned to swim in her son's memory the year before. I told her of my swim upon coming back home the previous year and of wearing her son's mission and memory coins as I traveled across the bay on this day. She smiled as we talked, said thank you, and then hugged me. My heart again stood still. Once again I was in awe of what her and her family and those alike, must go through each day, and I only hope that with each day and each effort by all of us these families are lifted and healed just a bit more.
While I am sure there are tears, this event is also about the smiles we shared together because of the sacrifice of others and those smiles we cherish.      
The Frogman is a dear event to me. This year with the help of MANY friends and local support I raised $1400 for the Navy SEAL Foundation. I am thankful to all those who helped, from working water stops, to eating out for a cause, to making custom bracelets, to donating, and supporting me each time I went in the water. A special thank you to my mother who will always be waiting patiently with a cow bell to bring me home safely; to my father who offers guidance to my path, even into the blinding sun; and to my love (Patrick) who stands by me, kayaks by me, swims by me, bikes by me, runs by me, and loves me each day more than I could have even imagined a person could love.
Here's to making plans to get in to the event for 2018!! 

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