Every Sunday morning, I wake up before the sun and sit on Spa Beach next to the St. Pete Pier with some 30 other regular and irregular pilgrims to watch the sunrise before we strip down, don goggles and caps, and form a huddle to listen to what Leo has to say.
He’ll let us know the route we’ll swim out and around the pier, note the water temperature, remind us to stick together, and give his usual water safety briefing before he sends us off into the bay.
Leo Briceno is a lifelong athlete and coach who organizes open-water swims like this for the public. He was born and raised in Venezuela, where at 13 years old he was given a choice between joining a local gang and spending his days at the local YMCA. By 17, he was the captain of his swim team and a competitive triathlete.
On Aug. 20, after sending us off, Leo stayed on the beach to watch. Our multicolored neon swim caps and buoys on the waves look like a spilled box of candy migrating east. He hasn’t swam in three years.
Last Wednesday was the third anniversary of the day Leo and his mother were driving to work when another driver hit them head-on. The collision took the lives of Leo’s mother and the other driver and put Leo in the ICU.
After surgery and three weeks in the hospital for a broken leg, hip, and arm, Leo had to learn how to walk again.
“It’s frustrating,” he said. “I was a breaststroker, but I can’t do breaststroke anymore because of my hip.”
One week after the crash, Leo learned that he was going to be a father.
“I didn’t have time to feel sorry for myself,” he said. “I’m in pain every day. I try to stay positive, other people have it worse than me.”
Coach Leo Briceno
Leo built his career as a coach teaching people with disabilities how to swim. Now, he gets to take that journey on his own. Only in the past three months has he been able to sleep in a bed instead of upright on the couch. He started leaving his cane at home a few weeks ago. He walked across the St. Pete Pier to watch us swim and cheer us on.
“Today, I walked around the Pier; it felt like a 10k,” he said after the swim. “I was sweating so much. I still have pain, but you never know who can get inspired. Just by me moving around, it might inspire others.”
Humans are not well-designed to swim. Yet we swim for food, we swim for fun, we swim to survive. It takes great courage to let go of the ground below you and move yourself through a medium 800 times denser than air with nothing fixed to hold on to and air to breathe only if you know how to find it.
Open Water Swimming
Leo knows this. For his first swim lessons in Venezuela at 11 years old, he was thrown into the deep end of the pool and expected to learn through instinct. He almost drowned. As a coach, he does everything he can to make his athletes as comfortable as he can so they can swim without fear.
“Open water can be intimidating. Swimming is one of the most intimidating sports,” Leo said.
He’s never had any safety incidents at his swims. He credits this record to preventative measures: safety briefing, kayak support, alternate routes. Everyone swims at their own risk, but also at their own level.
Not sure you can make it the whole way on the swim? Leo will make sure someone is with you for a shorter route. Afraid to put your head under? He’ll start you in shallow water. Never been in before? Breathing exercises on dry land.
The St. Pete Pier Open Water Swim Facebook group has 1,500 members. Most swims have around 30 people. Leo is always trying to grow the event through social media.
“I want to encourage people to swim because it creates a series of other great behaviors. It instills confidence,” he said. “I believe all of us are heroes. We give examples to someone, a son, a daughter, a nephew, a niece, a stranger, that’s being a hero.”