Jellyfish stings dampen Naples swim event for most

Corey Perrine/Staff
Swimmers get acclimated to the Gulf of Mexico Sunday, Sept. 2, 2012 in Naples, Fla. Exactly 290 people, young and old, registered to swim either 2.4, 1.2 or .6 miles. Participants started at Lowdermilk Park and ended as far as the Naples Pier in the First Annual Park-to-Pier noncompetitive open swim. The event was hosted by T2 Aquatics and promoted by Naples Area Triathletes, Gulf Coast Runners and Naples Velo. Most important, $3,000 was raised and a check presented to The Safe and Healthy Children's Coalition of Collier County before hitting the water.

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Corey Perrine/Staff Swimmers get acclimated to the Gulf of Mexico Sunday, Sept. 2, 2012 in Naples, Fla. Exactly 290 people, young and old, registered to swim either 2.4, 1.2 or .6 miles. Participants started at Lowdermilk Park and ended as far as the Naples Pier in the First Annual Park-to-Pier noncompetitive open swim. The event was hosted by T2 Aquatics and promoted by Naples Area Triathletes, Gulf Coast Runners and Naples Velo. Most important, $3,000 was raised and a check presented to The Safe and Healthy Children's Coalition of Collier County before hitting the water.

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Pristine waters, calm winds and a cloudless sky made conditions perfect the first Park-to-Pier swim Sunday morning.

All that could put a damper on the day: a swarm of stinging jellyfish.

Minutes into the noncompetitive open water swim, most of the 200-plus participants scrambled from the water and back onto the Lowdermilk Park beach, with stings stretching from neck to toe. Some brave souls fought through the pain, pushing on the 2.4-mile swim to the Naples Pier, but a majority did not finish on account of the sea creature.

"I started swimming and it was like they just started attacking," said 9-year-old Annabelle Cialone, sporting a deep-red splotch on her neck.

Despite the jellyfish disruption, organizers estimated more than $3,000 was raised for the Safe & Healthy Children's Coalition of Collier County. Kevin Erndl, director of T2 Aquatics, the Naples swim team hosting the event, said about 160 people signed up, with dozens more registering Sunday morning.

"I had no idea how many people we would have," Erndl said. "I thought 100, maybe 150, but we've exceeded that. It seems like it's been a well-received event so far."

Everything went, well, swimmingly until participants hit the water. The family friendly event brought out hardened triathletes, casual waders and dozens of families. As the sun rose over their left shoulder, swimmers were sent off by a horn alongside Lowdermilk Beach, each with one of three distances in sight — 0.6 miles, 1.2 miles or 2.4 miles.

But within seconds, like a scene from a bad shark attack movie, most started rushing back to the beach. Suddenly, anybody with vinegar became the most popular person in Naples. Vinegar is considered a remedy for jellyfish stings.

Jane Heffelfinger and two friends training for next month's Marco Island Triathlon surrendered within minutes, combining for 10 stings.

"We started feeling stinging on our legs and didn't really think anything of it and figured we'd just keep going," said Heffelfinger, 36, of North Naples. "Then we started feeling stings all over. I got it in the neck and said, 'Alright, I'm done.'"

Still, the non-competitive setting was tailored for people like Julie Joiner, a Children's Coalition supporter swimming in an organized event for the first time.

"I don't have professional garb or attire, and I'm not a competitive athlete," said Joiner, 38, of North Naples. "It made it more comfortable for me to feel like I'd still be welcome here and wouldn't be embarrassed."

Organizers hope to continue the event next year, free of a jellyfish takeover. Several participants welcomed the open swim event, calling in one-of-a-kind in Southwest Florida.

"Most swim teams across the country don't have the seawater out there, which is like glass here," said Nancy Schwerin, 52, a swimmer for T2's Masters team.

"I'm from California, and you can't do this — have an open water swim with people who aren't strong swimmers and might want to get into it and try it out. I think this is unique and great."

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