Local celebs demonstrate river’s “swimming health”

By Stephen Kindland
Resident Community News

The success of the recently held Celebrity Jump to showcase the St. Johns River’s recreational value has Riverside resident Jim Alabiso already looking forward to next year.
“It set a really good example for the city,” Alabiso said after a dozen local celebrities dove into what he refers to as “Jacksonville’s aquatic centerpiece” during last month’s River Ruckus, a fundraising and water preservation awareness event held at the Riverside Arts Market under the Fuller Warren Bridge.

Julie Watkins, correspondent with Fox 30 Action News, entertained the crowd with her dive into the St. Johns River as part of the Celebrity Jump portion of last month’s River Ruckus held at the Riverside Arts Market

Julie Watkins, correspondent with Fox 30 Action News, entertained the crowd with her dive into the St. Johns River as part of the Celebrity Jump portion of last month’s River Ruckus held at the Riverside Arts Market

“It turned out better than I expected,” said Alabiso, an open-water swimmer and executive director of Jumping Fish, a not-for-profit organization charged with preserving and maintaining the health of public waterways. “This is the third year we’ve done this and we have a very focused plan.”

Scheduled next is Jumping Fish’s third annual “Up the River Downtown,” a 10 kilometer swim featuring 12 swimmers and a flotilla of kayak paddlers who will make their way from Jacksonville University to the Riverside Arts Market on Sept. 7. The event is part of Alabiso’s long-range plan to demonstrate that the St. Johns can be incorporated into the local economy by holding triathlons and competitive, long-distance swims.

“Those events attract hundreds of competitors,” he said. “And those competitors bring their families, and they book [hotel] rooms. We insiders call it ‘trickle up environomics.’
“It’s all about preserving what we have and continuing to bust myths” that the St. Johns is too polluted to enjoy, Alabiso added. “If we can create an economy around the river, the economy becomes its protector. It will no longer be a bunch of us holding up signs and signing petitions.”

Aside from gathering research by taking part in similar events in other cities, Alabiso has drawn support from local high-profile names, many of whom joined him in the Celebrity Jump.
“I hope the word gets out about the St. Johns,” said WAWS-TV correspondent Julie Watkins after her sideways, quarter-twist dive earned a rousing cheer from more than a hundred spectators. “People don’t know how healthy the river is.”

Watkins, who also is president of The Girls Gone Green, a Jacksonville-based environmental awareness group, said she agreed to take part the moment she was asked.
“The St. Johns is underappreciated,” she said. “This was great. It showed how much fun the river can be.”

Veteran chief meteorologist Tim Deegan of WTLV-TV’s First Coast News agreed.

“We get locked into the 8-to-5 thing and we forget what we have here,” said Deegan, a once-avid surfer who stayed in the water to watch the remaining celebrities perform entertaining dives from a boat anchored at a river taxi stop. “I just loved it; the river is healthy.”

Tony Allegretti, a San Marco area resident and director of downtown engagement for the Jax Chamber, said he enjoyed a quiet walk along the St. Johns on Riverside Drive before taking his dive.

“The St. Johns isn’t underappreciated, it’s just underutilized,” he said. “But the upside is that more people are getting access to it.”

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