The River Comes of Age

This summer, Jim Alabiso’s dream for the St. Johns River is coming true. Starting in 2010, he and his advocacy group, JumpingFish, spearheaded a grassroots movement to develop more athletics and recreation on the St. Johns River in Jacksonville’s Downtown area. Alabiso recalls sitting on a city dock in 2006 and wondering why more folks in Jacksonville weren’t taking advantage of such a significant natural resource. After all, people have been swimming in the St. Johns since ancient times. How did it become a wasteland of bulk-headed private property?
But now, the Downtown waterway is on the brink of a new era, one that promises beaches, more public docks, events every weekend, and a riverscape dotted with colorful kayakers, swimmers, and sunbathers.
To start, DRC Sports and JumpingFish will host three triathlon events over the summer, using the river for the swim portion. In addition, September’s Up the River Downtown Swim takes place as an official race for the first time. The annual event typically draws a small group of local swimmers, but this year Alabiso projects that hundreds of athletes from around the country will compete. As Jacksonville’s first open water marathon on the river, this is a big deal. The 10k swim, also organized by DRC Sports and JumpingFish, will commence at Jacksonville University and finish at the Riverside Arts Market at the Fuller Warren Bridge. It will go under the Hart Bridge, the Matthews Bridge, past the stadium, through the Main Street Bridge, and under the Acosta and railroad bridges. The race is scheduled for September 22nd, and it should take the swimmers about two hours to complete.
Not only will swimmers be on the river, but the events also include the kayaking crowd. Triathletes will need support during their swim, and DRC Sports is inviting kayakers and paddleboarders to join them as safety escorts. For each kayaker who volunteers, DRC will donate $25 to the Special Olympics.
Jim Alabiso is thrilled to see his work bear so much fruit all in one summer and to know that the city is supporting the group’s efforts. Currently, City Council Member Lori Boyer is heading up the Waterways Commission, and Parks and Recreation is on board with all of the new changes. But Alabiso remembers when there was a lot of pushback, even for private swims. “Back in 2010 we were always fighting City Hall. It was illegal to swim from a public dock,” he says. That’s when he initiated the “Rebel Swim” tradition: about a dozen open water swimmers would come together in solidarity to swim in the river. But by 2013 the group got tired of feeling like criminals, as Alabiso puts it, so he worked with Jim Love and Bill Bishop to change the statute. They altered the language to allow swimming in the St. Johns from public docks with a permit, but that was just the first step.

Read MoreBy Sarah Clarke Stuart

Author: Arbus

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