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The Lifeline

Bringing you the best local stories in and around our community.

Teachable Moments

Featured Photo from Teachable Moments

He just swam the St. Johns River, from Sanford through Jacksonville. He once rode a bike – in his classroom – for more than seven hours straight. He’s built homemade cameras, weather balloons, and more. It may sound like weird science, but Lake Mary High physics teacher Luther Davis does it all for his students and the community.

Lake Mary High School physics teacher Luther Davis might teach Newton’s first law of motion to his students every year, but he has yet to meet a force strong enough to stop him in the pursuit of his goals.

Luther, 44, is in constant motion. The Longwood resident and his wife Brandi, herself an occupational therapist with Seminole County Public Schools, have two children, Abigail (13) and Dash (10). For almost 19 years, Luther has earned a reputation for wearing quirky bow ties and creating a fun learning environment in his physics and astronomy classes at LMHS.

Luther has also become equally well-known outside the classroom for his sometimes wild physical feats and challenges – but he recently took it to a new level when he spent 11 days over spring break, swimming 164 miles of the St. Johns River, from the Sanford marina to the Jacksonville jetties leading into the Atlantic Ocean. Luther called the campaign the St. Johns River Swim to raise awareness about the river’s delicate ecosystem, and it has inspired and energized not just his Lake Mary community, but people all over the state.

This is not Luther’s first epic show of physical endurance (or what some might describe as his crazy ideas). First, he flirted with long-distance running, which took too great a physical toll on his back and knees. Then Luther moved on to cycling, often logging 100 miles on a typical Saturday morning by biking to New Smyrna Beach and back.

In 2010, Luther turned his cycling hobby into an opportunity to raise money for charity and teach physics at the same time. He built his own bicycle and roller system that allowed him to ride for seven-and-a-half hours straight – covering 143.1 miles – inside his classroom while he taught physics live for both his students and viewers on the internet. The stunt raised $1,700 for the American Diabetes Foundation.
But after his enthusiastic cycling contributed to a ruptured disc in his back, the University of Florida grad chose to return to his own high-school sport of swimming. Five years ago, Luther began training with the U.S. Masters Swimming program at the J. Douglas Williams YMCA in Lake Mary every morning before school.

True to form, he soon became restless. Luther began to look for ways to challenge himself, starting with a swim race around the perimeter of Key West, where he took fourth place. Then in 2014, he completed a solo, 12-hour endurance swim in the YMCA pool for a total of 25.82 miles – and an amazing 1,818 flip turns! Luther again used the event as a fundraiser, selling the right to sign his Speedo in exchange for donations that gave $1,300 toward swim lesson scholarships at the YMCA and benefited the LMHS swim and water polo teams.

He followed that by becoming one of the first four finishers to swim the three mile length of Lake Monroe in the Gator Bait Swim of 2014. If that wasn’t enough, Luther went back into Lake Monroe in 2015 to pull a friend’s 40-ton boat for a mile with a rope around his waist in 2015 – just for fun. It took him an hour and a half.

Luther’s friend and fellow LMHS physics teacher Steve DeSanto knows these stunts only complement the hard work Luther does in his classroom.

“As a physics teacher, he provides kids with a great background in critical thinking, problem solving, and hands-on experiences,” Steve says. “Whether building an aerial camera over the LMHS football stadium [a project Luther, Steve, and their physics students completed in 2012], designing a hovercraft, or swimming the St. Johns, Luther has to tackle problems as they happen and work his way through them. He shares both his successes and setbacks with the students and passes along the lessons that he learned.”
And when Luther sets a goal, look out.

“If he comes up with an idea, you can be sure that he’s going to pursue it with everything he has,” Steve adds with a laugh.

That’s exactly what happened when Luther first imagined his plan for a multi-stage swim event up the St. Johns. Fellow swimmer and retired school teacher Tom Fromholz would drive his 65-foot boat up the river while Luther swam behind it, flanked on either side by kayakers and other support boats. He’d sleep on Tom’s boat every night and pause only to rehydrate and nourish his body with protein drinks during the day.
“He thought it was a fantastic idea,” Luther says of his initial pitch to Tom. “Tom called it his ‘adventure of a lifetime,’ and he’s over 70, so that makes me feel pretty good.”

It took Luther two more years to prepare for what became the St. Johns River Swim, and along the way, he began to see how the attempt would fit perfectly into what he teaches at school.

“I started learning about the St. Johns River and how cool it is,” Luther says. “It’s a shallow river, and the land around it falls only 15 feet from here to the Atlantic, so the river is affected by weather, it’s affected by tides. It’s kind of a neat, dynamic system, and the physics of it is kind of cool.”

Luther also learned about the challenges facing the river, including nutrient runoff from fertilizers and cow manure that create algae blooms and pollution.

“I began to think I could turn this event into something more than just me swimming,” Luther says. “Disney and the beaches are what Central Florida is known for, but the river is a hidden treasure, and people don’t respect it the way that they might. It’s a valuable resource for entertainment, beauty, and wildlife.”

To bring more awareness to the St. Johns River and its importance in the community, Luther decided he would trace the path of one hypothetical raindrop that might fall on his property in Longwood all the way to its final destination in the Atlantic Ocean. It was an ambitious plan covering 183 total miles on land and water. It required a fundraising campaign just to pay for the logistics, many volunteers, and backup plans to succeed... and there were a dozen ways or more it could go wrong.

Not surprisingly, Luther couldn’t wait to begin.

On Thursday, March 15, after two years of preparation and training, Luther and a small group of his students hiked the 200 yards from his house to Soldier’s Creek, then another 3.6 miles along the creek to its junction with Lake Jesup.

The next day, Luther kayaked the 16 miles across and around Lake Jesup to where it meets the St. Johns River at the Sanford Marina. Finally, that Saturday morning, just after the sun rose over the glassy water of Lake Monroe, Luther spoke to a crowd of supporters gathered to send him off. He stripped down to a Speedo and a swim cap and slathered zinc all over his face and body to protect him from the sun. 

Luther led the crowd in a cheer: For the river! For the river! For the St. Johns River! and then he waded into the water to begin his epic journey with his support boats and kayak team by his side.

The swim was supposed to take eight days – though the team knew there was a good chance that extreme weather might slow them down, especially on the third day when Luther hoped to be swimming across Lake George, the second largest lake in Florida. After two strong days of swimming 18 miles to Hontoon Island and then 20 miles to the town of Astor, Luther was stymied by the storms. He slowed down as he crossed Lake George in the severe weather by swimming two half-days instead.

After the storms passed, Luther and his team were back in the water, but he was forced to give up his plan of swimming under English Channel rules, meaning with a swim cap and bathing suit only. The water temperature dropped to a point where Luther could feel his body start to fight chills, and he says he knew if he didn’t wear a full-body wetsuit, he wouldn’t be able to complete the swim.

“One of the things that surprised me was how strong I felt throughout the entire journey,” Luther says, “but it was 39 degrees one morning, and the water temps eventually got down to 57. I could feel my lips and my chin start to quiver with the cold. I struggled with the decision to wear a wet suit – I enjoy being fully connected with the environment, and the wet suit creates a barrier. But I could still taste the water and feel it on my face and hands and feet. Still, I didn’t feel as fully connected, and that bothered me for about a day. It was necessary for my personal safety, though.”

Luther’s kayaking volunteers and support-boat crews included his loyal and enthusiastic daughter, Abby. She traveled up the St. Johns with her dad every day except one when she reluctantly had to go home to get a new set of braces on her teeth. Along the way, Abby broadcasted Luther’s swims on Facebook Live and fed him or hydrated him every 30 minutes, using concoctions that included apple juice, protein powder, and other carbohydrates.

The support team also guided Luther away from any wildlife they spotted in his path, including alligators and jellyfish.
“Our gator count was 38, and about a third of them were in the water,” Luther says, though he was always confident the gators would give him a wide berth. “I never saw any in the water myself.”

Luther’s biggest “heebie-jeebie moment,” as he calls it, came on the second-to-last day of the journey when he was swimming from inland Jacksonville to Mayport Naval Station.

“Something large and smooth and alive brushed up against me to check me out,” Luther says. “It shoved my arm underneath my body and changed the direction of my swim. I’m guessing it was either a bull shark or a dolphin, but the water is so murky there, and you can’t see far, so I had no idea what it was.”

Luckily, Luther never had to find out.

After 11 days and 164 miles in the water, Luther swam from the Dames Point Bridge to just past the jetties where the St. Johns River meets the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida, and the St. Johns River Swim was complete. The emotional finish was captured on Facebook Live by Abby and Luther’s  support volunteers.

After the swim, Luther said the single aspect of the odyssey that surprised him most was the community support he received all the way up the river – from family, friends, and complete strangers.

“People were standing off the ends of their docks; they knew when I was coming by and they were cheering my name,” Luther says with disbelief still in his voice.

“In Palatka, a lady asked if she could kayak with me for a couple of hours,” Luther recalls, “and I said, ‘Sure!’ So she kayaked with us, and when we went around a corner at one point, she said, ‘Those are my friends.’ There was a whole group of people with a giant banner hanging across this bridge, and they started running and yelling, ‘Swim, Luther, swim!’”

Luther also found support from groups of people gathered at the ends of boat ramps cheering him on. One group even played a recording of the line “Just keep swimming!” from the movie Finding Nemo.

His latest feat has left Luther’s family, his friends, and his students in awe. The morning Luther returned to work after spring break, his students didn’t just give him a standing ovation, they actually stood on their desks and cheered for him.
His principal is a big fan, too.

“I have never met a more passionate teacher,” says Dr. Mickey Reynolds, Lake Mary High’s principal. “And while his unfettered enthusiasm in the classroom would be enough to inspire any student, his accomplishments outside of the classroom drive home the point that one person can have a far-reaching impact. I have to admit that I was skeptical he could actually complete the swim. I knew he could swim 8 to 10 hours per day for several days, but I was concerned that the fatigue of swimming all day for eight-plus days on end would make his goal exceedingly difficult to accomplish. I’m thrilled that my concerns were unwarranted, which just goes to show you that you shouldn’t underestimate the determination of a passionate teacher! I was very impressed with Luther before the swim, but now that he’s accomplished his goal, he’s my hero!”

For Luther himself, the St. Johns River Swim was phenomenal.

“I did more than connect with the river; I connected with my peers and my students, with complete strangers, and with my daughter,” Luther says. “It was so neat to have different volunteers every day and to give 78 volunteers the firsthand experience of being on the river as part of the journey. How could I possibly be more proud of the entire experience?”

His biggest hope, Luther says, is for a ripple effect: Perhaps what he did those 11 days in the St. Johns River will inspire someone else – a student, his children, a stranger – to pursue a dream or a passion, too.

“What if I inspire a student, and in the future, they do something that inspires me to support them and to make some kind of change in a full-circle way?” Luther asks. “That gives me goosebumps.”

What’s next for this ever-so-slightly-mad scientist? Stay tuned.

“I don’t know what will top this,” chuckles Luther, “but every time I’ve done something like this in the past, I have asked the same question. So we’ll see. Actually, I think I have an idea, and maybe it’s something my son and I could do together.  

Living with Luther

How do you keep up with this guy?

Since the moment she met him, Brandi Davis knew that her husband Luther never did anything halfway.

“He was always doing something, always going above and beyond, always doing something unique,” Brandi says. “When he gets engrossed in something, he’s all in – go big or go home.”

That spirit is what enables Luther to accomplish huge endeavors like the St. Johns River Swim, but it presents a challenge for the parents of two anytime Luther begins his intense, often-daily training regimen to prepare for his next personal challenge. To ready his body for the St. Johns River Swim, Luther trained every day, beginning at 5:30 a.m., and spent countless hours on weekends swimming laps in Little Lake Mary.

“It takes a lot of patience. It takes a lot of compromise,” Brandi says. “Sometimes I have to remind him to balance his life and to kind of bring it back a little. Luther will step it back a little, but then he ramps it up again. There is an ebb and flow, a give-and- take while he does these things. I live in fear every day of his next plan,” Brandi adds with a chuckle.

Brandi does say no to some of Luther’s ideas. In fact, she initially tried to put the kibosh on the St. Johns River Swim.

“I lost, obviously,” she says.

Luther delayed the swim for a year due to logistics, and in that time, he was able to allay many of Brandi’s questions and fears about the challenge – enough to convince her it would be okay.

When Luther is begging her to let him try another ambitious goal, Brandi uses the moment to her advantage.

“I try to negotiate some girls’ weekends and time for me,” she says, smiling.

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