Mike Donnelly admits he wasn’t much of a student at Miami’s Killian High. So he joined the military at age 17 and became a SEAL, the Navy’s elite special-operations force.
As a SEAL — which stands for Sea, Air and Land — Donnelly traveled extensively throughout South and Central America, becoming an expert in explosives, a sniper and a point man, leading his unit through missions in the jungle.
And even though Donnelly left the Navy in 1998, starting companies that included cross-fit gyms and real-estate firms, he has never quite gotten the SEAL lifestyle out of his system.
In May 2013, Donnelly — along with two other members of Seal Team 4, including one who is still involved with the group, Jupiter’s Hector Delgado — came up with an idea to bring the type of physical training they received in the Navy to the masses.
That idea became BattleFrog, which bills itself as the nation’s leading outdoor fitness event and obstacle-course organizer.
The races have caught on quickly. Last week, BattleFrog gained national attention when it secured title sponsorship for the 45th annual Fiesta Bowl.
“Extremely,” Donnelly said when asked if he was surprised at how the BattleFrog events have captured the imagination of so many in the fitness world.
“We called it BattleFrog because you are battling yourself, battling exhaustion.”
The “Frog” part of the name has to do with the amphibious nature of Navy SEALs, adept at navigating through water or by land, no matter the obstacle.
Navigating through the process of taking an idea and making it a business wasn’t easy, either.
In the summer of 2013, Donnelly and his buddies met with a Miami lawyer, Michael J. McAllister, who quickly embraced the idea, scribbling notes on napkins as they lunched at Hillstone restaurant in Coral Gables.
“I’m a marathon runner myself,” McAllister said. “We all thought this was a growth industry.”
Last March, Miami’s Ramiro Ortiz was brought in, first as a consultant and eventually as the CEO. A banker by trade — he was the president of SunTrust and BankUnited — Ortiz has always had a passion for sports. In fact, he has promoted numerous boxing shows over the years and is in the Florida Boxing Hall of Fame as a historian of the sport.
“Once I was presented with the opportunity to become involved with BattleFrog,” Ortiz said, “it took me a nano-second to say yes.”
BattleFrog first made waves nationally with its 2015 College Championships, which aired on ESPN in July. A typical BattleFrog race is an 8K run, crawl, climb and swim that takes about two hours to complete. But for TV purposes, the College Championships was condensed to a 350-meter co-ed race with 20 obstacles.
Athletes from 16 colleges, including Miami, Alabama, Southern California and Michigan, competed as teams, and the event became a hit.
“We got two million viewers in the first week [over repeated viewings],” McAllister said. “Our audience went up each time it aired, which meant that there was a word-of-mouth buzz. We got a lot of tweets from people saying it was their new favorite show.”
Army — predictably, perhaps — won the 2015 College Championships, and the event has been picked up by ESPN again for the summer of 2016.
Scholarship athletes did not compete in the inaugural event because coaches, understandably, were scared of injuries. But McAllister hopes that those same coaches see that the event is safe and that scholarship athletes will compete in the future.
“We want the best athletes we can get,” said McAllister of the event that offers $2,000 in scholarship money to each of the five winning team members. “It has already gotten the attention of serious athletes.”
But as much attention as the College Championships received, it is only part of the BattleFrog experience. The bulk of the business consists of the races that take place all over the country — 15 held in 2015 and 44 planned for 2016. The season opens Jan. 23 in San Diego.
“BattleFrog is a South Florida-centric company, but our values of health, fitness, family, outdoors and patriotism are shared all over the country,” Ortiz said. “Our objective is to have events the entire family can enjoy.”