INDIAN ROCKS BEACH – A local man plans to sail into the record books by piloting a small sailboat from Clearwater south along the coast to the mouth of Tampa Bay, then east to St. Petersburg. He will complete this feat using nothing more than his determination, his ingenuity and his breath.
Paralyzed from the shoulders down in a 1990 bicycle accident, Tim Swieckowski aims to set a world record for a quadriplegic by sailing solo for 16 hours in and around the bay area. With the encouragement and sponsorship of friends and family, he will meet this challenge with the same inspirational grit he has displayed throughout his young life.
Swieckowski developed a fondness for the salt air and the high seas in his childhood. Born in Colorado Springs, Colo., his family came from Key West, where he also lived for a short time. Raised in Fort Collins, he vacationed with his grandparents in Key West annually.
The accident happened in Fort Collins. At the time, in the area where he and his family lived, there were only a few subdivisions surrounded by agricultural land. The city, rushed to develop land for residential use, hurriedly paved new streets and poured new sidewalks.
Returning from a visit with a friend, 15-year-old Swieckowski raced along a bike lane through light snow and darkness. No signs or barricades warned him that the path he followed would abruptly end. Flying over the handle bars, he fell head-first down into a 6-foot deep culvert, suffering severe damage to his spinal cord. Alone and paralyzed, Swieckowski lay in the ditch for nearly two hours as the night grew colder and the snow continued to fall.
“I was conscious the whole time,” Swieckowski said. His parents retraced his route, finding him without a minute to spare. “When the ambulances arrived, I was code black.” But Swieckowski said that even in those harrowing moments he never felt depressed. He achieved a “state of bliss,” a sensation that has since kept him positive and motivated.
During his long recovery at the Children’s Hospital in Denver, he spent as much time helping others as he did healing himself. He established a newsletter as a forum for children to tell their stories.
“No matter what happens, the memories you have and the events you go through in life can never be taken away,” Swieckowski said. “My mantra is ‘stay golden.’ I say this because when you lose something significant, there are so many precious memories before and after, and these memories will never go away. They will stay pure and untarnished like gold itself.”
He encouraged the children at the hospital to talk about their lives, and to relive and share their adventures. “Those kids still had memories, and talking about it made them feel better.” Swieckowski published three issues of 5th Floor News as editor-in-chief before delegating the responsibility to another willing patient.
By 18, Swieckowski had taken a step many teenagers are either too eager or too reluctant to take: He moved out of his parent’s home and rented an apartment.
“My parents are true angels, as they have given up their life to give me one.” Residents of Largo, Swieckowski’s parents are close and visit him frequently. His independence grants him a great sense of accomplishment. “Only one to two percent of people with this condition live alone. If you work hard and want it enough, you can do anything.”
Swieckowski has accomplished more in the short span of years since his accident than many people attempt in a lifetime. He runs a company called Dream Quest Adventurers. For up to 20 hours a day, he combines research with technology to locate shipwrecks from the 16th and 17th centuries.
Swieckowski has located several ships, including a Spanish frigate that sank in the 1730s off the coast near Pensacola. Finding the wrecks is one thing – recovering artifacts from them is another.
At age 27, Swieckowski acquired his Handicapped Scuba Association certification in Key Largo, completing four open water dives.
“They really beat you up,” he said, explaining the training was as strict and strenuous for him as for everyone else. There were “no exceptions for disability.” Ultimately, Swieckowski wants to be the first quadriplegic to work a wreck from the ground floor up.
“Looking for what those sailors lost and helping to recover it helps me recover something I lost,” he said.
Bringing Swieckowski even closer to those lost galleons of the Spanish Main is sailing, which he began two years ago, operating a specially designed craft that allows him to control the sails and the rudder by blowing into and sucking on two straws.
The “sip and puff” technique enabled him to compete last year in the North American Championship and International Regatta hosted by Sailability at the Clearwater Community Sailing Center. With minimal experience, Swieckowski overwhelmed other able-bodied competitors in the Silver Fleet dingy category and took first place.
“When sailing, I have a feeling of history. I’m reliving it,” said Swieckowski.
“It takes determination and money,” said Swieckowski, who already possesses a surplus of determination. In order to pursue his dream, however, he must seek donors and sponsors. To begin with, it will cost about $25,000 to fund the committee and safety boats which will shadow him on his journey. Despite the hefty price tag, he remains consistently positive.
“It’s the ability to go do it,” Swieckowski said. “I can’t be stopped.”