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Open water swimmers making waves around The Pier

Bill DeYoung



Cruising The Pier: Christie Bruner, Vice President of Advocacy at the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, makes her rounds. Photos provided.

A group of novice-to-seasoned swimmers meets every Sunday at the St. Pete Pier as a part of coach Leo Briceno’s “Open Water Swimmers” program. Sixty-six of them took to Tampa Bay Easter Sunday.

The tight-knit community gathers each week at sunrise.

“It’s all about practicing those strokes, building skills, and boosting confidence,” he likes to say.

“Leo is just a really empathetic and giving person,” said Christie Bruner, Vice President of Advocacy at the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, a friend of Briceno’s and a lifelong swimmer.

Swim coach and program founder Leo Briceno gives his charges some last-minute notes.

Briceno has been very happy to see the group grow over the past four years, as it began with just a handful of people, and now over 1,600 swimmers are members of his Open Water group.

While not all of these swimmers come out every week, he said, they come from throughout the state to become familiar with the water before the St. Anthony’s Triathlon (taking place April 26-28 this year).

The group meets at Spa Beach, where members swim at their own comfort level. Some stay in the water depth where they can stand up, while others go all the way out to the end of the Pier, around and back the same way. Which comes out to just over a mile.

Briceno calls them “committed swims,” because they are not parallel to the shore. If you commit and swim out to the end of the pier, swimming the same way you came from is the only way to get back, he said.

The safety aspect of these open water swims is especially relevant, said Bruner. Knowing the conditions, such as rip currents or tides – and how to be safe in them – is very important, she said.

That is where the volunteers, which have included youth lifeguards from Tampa and coaches from throughout the region, come in. They paddleboard along and look out for the swimmers’ safety.

Briceno is also working to start free water safety classes, he said, so that swimmers are prepared for various water conditions, and drownings can be prevented.

The unique view during these swims – the city, the Pier and the fishermen on the Pier and on the bay – is one of Bruner’s favorite parts of the experiencer. “It’s just such a unique view that most people don’t get to see, so it’s kind of a kept secret, ” she said.

A college swimmer and coach of pool-based swimming herself, Bruner said that open water swimming has been a new challenge for her, as she competed in pool swimming throughout her life.

Bruner encourages those that she coaches in pools to come out and try the open water swims.

“Most of them think that there is no way they can do it – they’re not comfortable, they’re scared, they don’t know what to expect, and I say this is a great opportunity. It’s right in our back yard. It’s a way to overcome a fear, overcome an obstacle, and really accomplish more than they thought that they could do,” she said.

“Seeing other people accomplish their goals is what I enjoy as well.”

The Open Water Swimmers have a Facebook group.





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  1. Avatar

    Ann R Beam

    April 3, 2024at5:01 pm

    Thank you for your post. I was thrilled when I read it!! I’m a senior citizen. Is there an age limit?

  2. Avatar

    Velva Lee Heraty

    April 3, 2024at4:18 pm

    Seriously? We have a clean community pool to swim in. Please before you risk your health and the health of others know that since the third water treatment facility was closed years ago, it’s heavily polluted. Note the wonderful St. Anthony’s marathon no longer takes place.and St. Pete no longer published water quality reports, challenge the author to do his homework and report back with here.

  3. Avatar

    Leo Briceno

    April 2, 2024at10:07 pm

    Thank you so much for highlighting our swims, my intention is to provide opportunities to swimmers to get better at swimming, build confidence and develop new skills that might help in any body of water. This is also an amazing way to encourage the community to swim more and avoid drownings!

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