Fla. firefighter-paramedic lives to tell of alligator attack
“The most important part of my life is to help and uplift other people, so there’s no way I can give up now," says 34-year-old J.C. LaVerde
J.C. LaVerde, who also goes by J.C. Defeats, was filming a promotional video for an upcoming triathlon when he was attacked by an estimated 12-foot alligator in Lake Thonotosassa.
J.C. certainly acknowledges the potential danger of alligators while swimming in freshwater but typically worries more about boats. He prefers to evaluate statistics and mitigate risk rather than to make choices driven by irrational fear.
“Just be prepared for that small chance of attack and take the proper precautions,” J.C. says. “Fears will drive you if you allow them to take the steering wheel.”
Swimming into the face of death
On Aug. 3, 2022, in a rush to meet up with Matt, the videographer who was filming the promo video, J.C. forgot to bring his swim cap and goggles. He admits this oversight may have played a role in the attack – the murky lake water and his long hair made it difficult to see under the surface. Not deterred, however, the two decided to film the swimming segment first using Matt’s drone, so J.C. entered the water and began to swim.
Approximately 350 yards into the swim, the 34-year-old athlete felt like he had swum head-on into a wall.
“I felt the teeth clamp down and instantly realized it was a gator,” he says. “My entire head and upper chest were inside her mouth. Then she bit down, and I felt the teeth pierce my flesh.”
Neither his time spent in the military nor his years in public safety prepared him for such an encounter. “I’ve attended many military schools but missed the alligator wrestling school,” he jokes. “That school does not exist in the DOD; otherwise, I would’ve signed up in a heartbeat.”
A native of Bogota, Colombia, J.C. is the founder and CEO of Defeat X Adventure Company and a firefighter-paramedic with the Oldsmar Fire Rescue Department in Oldsmar, Florida. He also served for 5 years as a Pararescueman, or PJ, an elite tactical branch of the U.S. Air Force. Despite his background and training, J.C. credits his faith in God with saving him on that fateful August day.
Escaping the jaws of the beast
At the moment of attack, J.C. recalls, there was a loud popping sound, then instinct took over: “God gave me the strength and ability to instantly grab both the upper and lower part of the jaw. One half of the jaw was clamped on my lower chest, the other on my lower shoulder blade. I’m not the most flexible person normally, but on this day, somehow, I was able to grab the tip of her snout and pull.”
But this was not the end, he says, “She chomped down again, and I felt teeth pierce my skull. Then, maybe she tried to do a death roll or maybe I flipped her, but we did a full 360. I reached my hands into her mouth, and I remember feeling her scales and teeth. I was surprised that the teeth were not that sharp, not like shark teeth, more like ours, but pointier. Right then, I knew, don’t ask me how, but I knew I was gonna get this thing off of me.”
J.C. remembers receiving a clear divine message: “Open the jaws, swim to the dock on the left, and you will be OK.”
After rolling the formidable beast, J.C. headed to his left toward the safety of the shore. He climbed onto the nearby dock and, looking behind him, saw the alligator’s giant tail disappear beneath the water. It had been pursuing him as he swam away. J.C. then began to evaluate his injuries.
“I checked my hands for severe cuts, saw chunks of my face with my peripherals, and couldn’t open my mouth without any pain,” J.C. says. In lieu of any severe bleeding, his focus was on letting Matt know he was out of danger. He began to make his way to what he thought was a road, so he could get back to the area where he began his swim and where Matt was stationed.
He recalls, “The pain was that of a nail being driven through my skull every time I stepped forward. Also, my mouth was in shambles – like multiple spoonfuls of dry granola inside of my mouth that I could not swallow.”
Thinking of others and finding help
After what seemed like forever, J.C. reached a gate bordering the backyard of a lakeside house. He jimmied it open and found a young girl playing in the yard. Trying to cover his face to avoid scaring her, J.C. asked her to get her mother and she ran off. The girl’s teenage brother then approached him, and realizing he was hurt, yelled for his mom to hurry.
When the children’s mother arrived, she assisted in caring for J.C.’s wounds and called 911. He instructed her to have the ambulance meet him where he started his swim because he wanted to talk to Matt before being taken to the hospital. Having seen the psychological effects of trauma while on the job, J.C.’s main concern was the videographer’s well-being. He knew Matt had witnessed the attack because he was filming the swim, but he wasn’t sure Matt knew he’d made it out of the water alive.
The good Samaritans loaded the bloody swimmer into their car and drove him to where Matt was operating the drone. Due to some tall grass and rough conditions, the car could not reach Matt, so J.C. walked the rest of the way barefoot with a blood-soaked towel over his head.
Upon standing, the pain was indescribable and the walk to find Matt like a marathon. As soon as Matt saw him, he ran to his car to grab a first aid kit. J.C. observed that Matt was understandably shaken, so he began to self-administer by pouring some seltzer water he had in his own car over the wounds to reduce the risk of infection and then applying bandages.
J.C. then drove himself and Matt to the front gate of the lakeside development to meet the Hillsborough County Fire Rescue engine that had by now arrived. The first responders made a quick assessment of J.C.’s condition and told him they could not give him any painkillers because he had a head injury. It seemed like 1,000 years instead of only 2 hours, J.C. remembers, from the time of the attack until he reached Tampa General Hospital and finally received some pain medication.
The road to recovery
As a result of a crushed skull and a broken jaw, J.C. spent eight days in the hospital and received almost 100 staples, an unknown number of facial sutures, a few stitches in his chest, a tracheotomy incision, two plates in his in jaw and 18 screws in his jaw. He also had his jaw wired shut for approximately six weeks and underwent a temporal craniectomy that requires him to wear a protective helmet for now.
In October, while on vacation in North Carolina with his wife, Christine, they noticed some puss oozing from his head. They immediately sought local medical care but, due to the limited resources there, ended up flying home the next morning and going directly to the ER at Tampa General Hospital. The doctors reopened J.C.’s skull to clean out the bacteria.
After another lengthy hospital stay, he was sent home and instructed to self-administer IV antibiotics for 6 weeks.
So far, J.C. has had three surgeries – a craniectomy and a jaw reconstruction immediately after the accident, and later a surgery to clean out the infection. He anticipates having to undergo one or two more, including a bone flap to be placed back on his skull in January. His recovery also required some rehabilitative work.
The doctors anticipated J.C. would experience complete right-side facial paralysis, but he gladly reports that he is 80% healed and mostly back to his regular self. When asked if he would go swimming again in Lake Thonotosassa, or any lake for that matter, he says he would 100% with the proper precautions.
Continuing with Defeat X
J.C. has not yet returned to Oldsmar Fire Rescue due to his injuries, but he is keeping himself busy with Defeat X. The adventure company – a concept he developed while in the military and continues to work on – is a membership-based program with five fingers of outreach: Adventure, Coaching/Competition, Mentorship, Nutrition and Philanthropy.
Since its founding in 2020, approximately 140 athletes have joined Defeat X. The program uses sport and adventure as therapy and gives participants the opportunity to overcome whatever challenges they are facing.
Prior to the attack, J.C. trained 20 to 40 hours per week, depending on the frequency and duration of upcoming events.
In 2020, J.C. completed a “Mt. Everest Challenge” by climbing 29,032 feet on a Jacobs Ladder, which is a treadmill-like machine featuring ladder-type rungs set at a 40-degree angle. He doubled up on the challenge by adding military and firefighter gear throughout the day and finished in six hours. J.C.’s feat raised $8,000 for children waiting to be adopted. In 2021, J.C. raised approximately $26,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society by hosting a cycling challenge.
J.C. still plans to host the Defeat X Adventure Race and participate in another Mt. Everest Challenge to benefit the Heart Gallery of Tampa. He is committed to giving back to his community and plans to use Defeat X to do so. “The most important part of my life is to help and uplift other people, so there’s no way I can give up now," J.C. says.
What about the alligator?
As for the alligator, J.C.’s expectations for Florida Fish and Wildlife locating the alligator that attacked him are low. Like most government agencies, he says, they are overworked and underfunded.
Gator season, however, opened on Aug. 15, only 12 days after the attack. The teenage boy J.C. met that day at the lake sent him a photograph of an alligator that a neighbor had hunted – and it is believed to be the same alligator that attacked J.C. The neighbor reportedly spotted a nest nearby, so there is speculation that the attack was perpetrated by a female who was protecting her territory, not necessarily looking for a meal.
In a recent “J.C. Defeats” podcast, the triathlete spoke with an expert who analyzed the video of the attack. The expert suggested that J.C. opening the alligator’s mouth inadvertently turned it on its back and put it in a state of tonic immobility. This paralysis-like fear response results when animals perceive they are in inescapable danger. This could explain the alligator floating to the surface briefly, allowing J.C. to escape.
When asked how the attack has changed his life, J.C. says that it’s been a huge blessing that has given him copious amounts of perspective. “[Instead] of just sympathy, I can now empathize with other people’s ‘small struggles.’ They are not small but best if categorized differently,” he says.
J.C. is also grateful for the family, friends, coworkers and community members who have supported him on this unexpected journey. He praises Christine, who is an RN, for taking especially good care of him. J.C. also reads scripture daily while reminding himself “that this is all temporary and that the real J.C. has control over all.”