Video Shows Ironman Triathlete Fighting For His Life During Attack by 12-Foot Alligator
“I felt teeth pierce my skull.”
A triathlete narrowly escaped with his life after being attacked by a 12-foot alligator in a Florida lake—and the horrifying incident was caught on drone camera. Juan Carlos La Verde, 34, was swimming in Lake Thonotosassa when the alligator came after him. What happened next is nothing short of a miracle.
La Verde's friend Bill Berry wrote an account of what happened to his friend, who posted it on Facebook. "'I felt the teeth clamp down and instantly realized it was a gator. My entire head and upper chest were inside her mouth. Then she bit down and I felt the teeth pierce my flesh. There was a loud popping sound, then instinct took over.' Those are the words of JC describing the moment as he was attacked by a 12-foot gator on August 3rd, 2022, at Thonotosassa lake in Florida," Berry says.
"Earlier that day he'd rushed out of a marketing meeting in order to make a 1 pm appointment. He was going to a video shoot with a videographer he'd never met before named Matt. The plan was to film a promotional video for the first in a series of adventure races that JC and his company DefeatX had scheduled. The race was to occur on November 26, 2022 and was open to athletes of all backgrounds and expertise. (Postponed duh )."
According to Berry, Le Verde was not afraid of the water. "Once JC and Matt had both arrived at the lake, they went over the shots they hoped to capture," Berry said. "Matt had brought along his drone, so they decided to film the swim course segment first. As JC prepared for the swim he was dismayed to discover that in his rush to arrive on time, he'd forgotten his swim goggles.
"Swimming alone in a murky Florida lake without goggles and a cap for his long hair might deter the average person, but not JC. As a seasoned Ironman triathlete with multiple races under his belt, and a regular participant in local open water swimming meet-ups, he's spent countless hours in the water. He wasn't going to let a small technicality like forgotten goggles ruin the day. At 2pm, without goggles, swim cap, kayak support, or any of the safety elements that would have been available to the participants on race day, JC dove into the water. The swim started off smoothly, and Matt dutifully flew the drone over head to capture the action. Then, roughly 350 yards into the swim, a large shape appeared in the water ahead of JC. (I clearly couldn't see it- ya know the no goggles and swim cap thing 🤣)."
"Looking like a torpedo churning up the water, it bee-lined straight towards him, then, chaos erupted," Berry said. "With a chuckle, despite a jaw wired shut so the broken bones can mend, JC described this initial contact with the gator, 'One time in high school while jogging with a friend, we were mid-conversation and I wasn't paying attention, then wham, I ran straight into a telephone pole. Getting hit by the gator felt just like running into that telephone pole, but now it had teeth.' Even now as he lays in the hospital recovering, JC maintains his jovial nature. 'When the teeth clamped down I instantly realized it was a gator. My entire head and upper chest were inside of her mouth. Then she bit down and I felt the teeth pierce my flesh. 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.'"
"She chomped down again and I felt teeth pierce my skull," La Verde said, according to Berry. "Then somehow, maybe she tried to do a death roll, maybe I flipped her, but we did a full 360. I reached my hands into her mouth and I remember feeling her scales and also her teeth. I was surprised that the teeth were not that sharp, not like sharks 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. Once we were upside down she let go, maybe because my hands were inside her mouth and she'd never experienced that before, I don't know the reason, but I immediately started swimming for a nearby dock."
"The platform was about 4' above the water line so I had to do a muscle up with an assist from my feet to grab hold of the platform," La Verde said. "Out of the corner of my eye I saw that the gator was turning away, so I lifted one leg up onto a structural part of the dock and doing a pull-up, swung my body out of the water and onto the platform. At this point I still didn't realize the extent of my injuries, but once I was safely out of the gators reach I saw I was bleeding. That's when the adrenaline wore off enough for the pain to hit. It was unbearable, like a migraine radiating from the back of my eyes and shooting out the bottom of my jaw. I realized that the popping sound I'd heard earlier was my jaw breaking. As I stood, I prayed to stay conscious. It was weird, besides the pain, I could still feel the crushing sensations, like she still had me in her mouth."
La Verde sought help from some locals who lived near the lake who called an ambulance. He ended up at Tampa General Hospital where he underwent six hours of surgery. "At first I felt terrible for having filmed something so awful," said Matt the videographer. "JC is one of the nicest people you'll ever meet, anyone who meets him knows it right away, he's just one of those larger than life personalities. And now, to see this happen to him, it felt wrong to have filmed it. But then I watched the film again, and again, and eventually I started to realize there is another side to this story. If the attack had happened any other way, it could have been so much worse.
"The way she grabbed him, the angles, the way they turned, the fact that he had a quick moment to catch a breath of air, somehow it all happened in just the right way, and he was able to escape. If she'd only gotten ahold of his head the initial twist might have broken his neck, or given her the chance to drag him under and drown him. Seeing it made me realize it was more than a tragedy, it's also a miracle. A miracle that there were people there to help him every step of the way, a miracle he's still with us, a miracle that despite the severity of the injuries, he's recovering and keeping his positive spirit."
La Verde's injuries were horrifying—wife Christine La Verde says he had his face and jaw reconstructed, as well as undergoing a craniotomy to remove part of his temporal lobe after brain puncture from a fractured bone, plus nerve damage and facial paralysis. Despite this incident, Christine wants people to know her husband is feeling positive about the future. "He just wants to inspire others to adventure, get outside, swim, bike, run, whatever you can do to just get up and go," she said.