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Thursday, Sep 18, 2014
Martin Fennelly Columns

Fennelly: Belief helps Bellini conquer English Channel

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TAMPA — The Bucs are adrift at 0-8. They can’t see the shore.

“It doesn’t matter how bad it seems, success is out there,” said Arnie Bellini, a longtime season-ticket holder. “Never give up.”

Arnie didn’t.

In early September, Bellini, 54, swam the English Channel on his second attempt, becoming the first person from Tampa to make such a crossing, according to the official Channel swim database.

Bellini swam the traditional route, from Dover, England, to Cap Gris Nez, France, in 16 hours, 6 minutes, 26 seconds. It’s 21.6 miles across as the sea gull flies, but factoring in tides, rip tides, currents, waves and zig-zag, Arnie Bellini swam about 41 miles.

“It’s Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride,” he said.

According to the same database, Bellini was the 1,397th person to swim the Channel and the 50th over the age of 50 to make it.

Bellini also is a dynamo on land. He’s CEO of ConnectWise, a Tampa Bay high-tech company he co-founded with his brother in 1982. He lives in Avila with Lauren, his wife of 25 years. They have two sons at college. Bellini swam for Tampa Catholic High.

“The Channel, that’s actually been on my bucket list since I was 9 years old, since my mom had me join the swim team when I was a kid,” he said. “I read an article about a woman who had swum the English Channel. It just captured my imagination.”

The first recorded person to swim the Channel was an Englishman, the redoubtable Matthew Webb, a steamship captain who in 1875 made it from Dover to Calais. He sipped brandy and noshed on pork pies and jam sandwiches along the way. Captain Webb later uttered the famed open-water swimmer battle cry: “Nothing great is easy.”

After Arnie Bellini turned 50, he completed three Ironman triathlons. But the Channel was out there, lurking inside his head.

“There are just so few times in life when you force yourself to face yourself — I mean really face yourself,” Bellini said.

So he found a local coach and training partner: Bart Cobb, 59, who swam for Jesuit High and the University of Arkansas. They went for it. They trained by swimming around Harbour Island, where Cobb lives, and Davis Islands. Bart’s wife, Kathy, followed them in a kayak. Arnie would swim in the lake in back of his house. Avila neighbors thought him daft.

Arnie and Bart attempted Channel swims on successive days in July 2012. They were used to training in Tampa water temperatures, as low as 64 degrees, close to Channel summer temps, but brutal nonetheless. How cold is 64-degree water? If you’ve gone tubing in a Florida spring and fallen in, and jumped right out — that’s 72 degrees.

“Now subtract eight degrees, then stay in it for 16 hours,” Arnie said with a smile.

Only the Channel water temperature was 59 degrees the day Bart Cobb made his attempt. It might as well have been a sea of steel daggers. He lasted 5 miles, until he went numb. Arnie went the next morning. It was 60 degrees. He swam 13 hours, to within 4 miles of the French coast, before he agreed to be hauled out like a prized catch. Bart, part of Arnie’s support crew, told his friend, “You need to live to fight another day.”

On shore, they learned that a 45-year-old swimmer from Ireland, Paraic Casey, who’d left the same Dover beach at the same time as Bellini, died after going into cardiac arrest a mile from France.

“It took a week or two before I decided to try again,” Arnie said.

It’s no small undertaking. And it isn’t cheap. Two groups monitor and certify Channel swims. Bellini chose the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation. You hire a boat and captain to help guide you. It costs about $4,000. A license for the attempt is $320. Then there’s getting to England and staying, maybe for a while, depending on the weather.

Arnie tried this past Aug. 22, but a storm front forced him to abort and wait for another day.

That day was “4th September, 2013,” as it reads on Arnie’s certificate. After two bowls of instant oatmeal at the hotel, Arnie and Lauren and a new crew (Bart and Kathy had returned to the States) headed for Dover’s Shakespeare Beach, the usual starting point.

Arnie had trained three years, 3,000 miles of swimming. He wore swim trunks, cap, goggles and nose and ear plugs. He was smeared — to prevent chafing — with Bag Balm, which farmers use on cows’ udders to ease irritation after milking.

He waded in at 7:18 in the morning. The water was 64 degrees warm. Before getting on the guide boat, Lauren told him, “Enjoy every stroke. You’re swimming the English bleepin’ Channel.”

“This is your day,” Arnie told himself.

It was a blue sky. “For a Florida boy, that was really important,” Arnie said. There was the usual logjam in the Channel, the world’s busiest seaway: cargo ships and cruise liners as tall as skyscrapers, their wakes creating chop, you’re swimming in a washing machine’s agitation cycle. Arnie had the right of way. “I was the pedestrian,” he said.

On board was crew member Loretta Cox, a Dover resident and Channel swim dervish, having made it across six times. Cox urged Arnie on, especially during feedings, every half hour, no solid food, just a bottle with a carb-protein mix. Arnie kept moving the whole time. If a swimmer so much as touches the guide boat, it’s not an official Channel swim.

Fourteen hours in, darkness fell like a hammer. Pitch black, a moonless night. It was beyond the physical by then. It always is in the Channel. “It’s the mental part,” Arnie said.

Loretta told him she needed his best hour of swimming. There was a rip tide. Arnie was churning, but only inching forward. Loretta yelled, “Give me another hour of your best swimming.”

Sixteen hours in, no moon, no shore. Where? Shortly after 11 p.m., the boat slowed. The water was too shallow. More swimming. Arnie couldn’t see a thing. He pawed for the rocks.

Then, at 11:26 at night — 6:26 here — he touched France. Nothing great is easy.

On the ride back, Arnie wolfed chocolate and talked nonstop. The next morning, feeling fine, he took the ferry from Dover to Calais, (three hours round trip, $52, high and dry), rented a car and went and found the spot where he’d touched. He had to see it in the daylight.

“I couldn’t have done it without my coach, my crew and my angel on board, Lauren,” Arnie said.

He has one last word for the Bucs.

“Believe.”

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