If you live in Tampa Bay and you do open water swimming, then you know Leo and Leo knows your name! But for those of you outside of this area we wanted to give you a real insight into the man himself.
Leo is one of the kindest and selfless people you will ever meet. Much of what he does day to day, he does for free, just because he loves to help others and put a smile on their face. Leo has worked closely with Stingray to test the goggles, and when all’s said and done it seemed pretty obvious that we had to name the goggles ‘Leo’ after this awesome man. Here is an interview we did with Leo recently.
When did you come to the United States from Venezuela and why?
Leo: I came to the United States in 1999 when I was 26 years old. I flew here by myself to start working at the YMCA in Clearwater, Florida. I didn’t want to be around when the Regime of Chavez came to power.
What was life like when you were growing up?
Leo: I grew up with one brother who is 5 years older than me. Up until I was 7, I was in foster care on the weekdays. I rotated between three different families from when I was 2-7. We didn’t have any toys at any of the houses and never knew what it felt like to be children. One of the moms that I stayed with made soup for every meal. If we didn’t finish our bowl, she would put it back in the fridge and heat it up again when we were hungry.
What kind of access to sports equipment and facilities did you have growing up?
Leo: Around the age of 7, I went to the YMCA for the first time. My mom signed me up for swim lessons and it was not the best experience. I had no prior experience in the water and the first thing they did was throw me into the deep end. When I was finally able to get out, I ran into the locker room and held onto the showers while three coaches came to get me to throw me back in. After being thrown in for the second time, I worked myself to complete exhaustion and passed out. When I woke up, I was terrified of the pool and never wanted to go back in.
After my first attempt at swim lessons, I learned how to play ping pong, soccer, basketball and volleyball. All of my friends from those sports also swam so everyday after playing with me, they would all go to swim practice and I would sit on the bench and watch. At 11 years old, I decided that I wanted to join in on the fun but the only way I would do that is by learning to swim at a different pool. 2 years later, I joined the swim team and fell in love with the sport. At the age of 17 I went to Nationals.
When was your first race?
Leo: I was 16 when I got into triathlons and open water swim races. My first open water swim race was a 26K and I was the youngest one there. After getting to know some of the swimmers, they introduced me to the world of triathlon. My first triathlon I did was an Olympic distance race. I started training for the race 2 weeks prior and borrowed a bike from a friend so I could do it. I figured I was in good enough swim shape and I had to run for swim practice so I just had to focus on biking for two weeks. I ended up completing the race in 2:15 as the youngest athlete.
When and why did you start coaching?
Leo: I started coaching when I was 17 at a preschool. I helped fix up the pool that was there and taught swim lessons. I didn’t want other people to get thrown into the deep end and be terrified of the water. I took classes to learn how to teach babies and adults how to swim.
What coaching do you currently do and do you put on events?
Leo: I coach masters swimming 3 times a week and I do open water swims 11 times a week and see over 400 athletes throughout the month. I started the Sand Key Open Water Swim Series here in Clearwater where we have 3 races within the year that consist of 1.2 mile and 2.4 mile swim. This year I have added the half mile distance to the series for those athletes who are getting into the sport. Every month I organize a swim at Rainbow River for athletes to gain confidence and test out wetsuits in lower water temperature swims.
What charities do you contribute to?
Leo: I always want to give back every opportunity I have. I used to work at a yacht club and I would do fundraisers there to help charities in the area. We would have pajama parties where everyone would wear their favorite pjs and bring a pair to donate. Some events, instead of a registration fee, I would ask athletes to bring a pair of shoes to donate to homeless shelters. Recently I have been volunteering at the food pantry in St. Pete, Florida where I feed 100 people a night. We also have the Ocean’s Heartbeat initiative with Stingray, supporting marine life conservation and beach clean up.