If you haven’t heard: A) Sarasota was recently named the best place to retire and row by B) There are plans afoot to create a world-class rowing destination at Nathan Benderson Park (centered on the big lake just south of University Parkway and west of I-75).


Just how far these plans have come—not to mention the capability of the people behind them—was not fully evident to me at first. I mean, after all, there’ve been a lot of big-time projects over the years that haven’t panned out. Especially recently. I’d taken the rowing excitement with a grain of salt. Until Friday, when CCB, Big J and I ventured out to the Florida Intercollegiate Championship Rowing Regatta.


First impression: Holy crap, that’s a lot of college students. (Well, first first impression was that that was a lot of people in general; they had a trolley to shuttle us from our parking spot to the lakeside festivities.) The paved path alongside the lake was lined with massive trailer after trailer holding a rainbow of countless sleek, streamlined skulls, surrounded by an ant farm of co-ed hustle and bustle: college kids moving their sculls and adjusting mechanics, scurrying back and forth with oars and ratchets, or passing the time with beach balls and naps. It reminded me a lot of a track meet.




Since former Stetson sculler Lefty couldn't make it, I had to rep for the Hatters alumnae.

So, I quickly realized, the event was a big one—12 colleges, including UF, FSU, Georgia Tech and my alma mater, Stetson. Similarly, I hadn’t really prepared my mind for how big the lake is. The three of us strolled past the line of boats and trailers, past the stands, the welcome tent, the trophy tent, the concession tent, the restroom trailer—past everything. The whole time we walked, an announcer chatted over a loud speaker; it took us a while to realize that the announcer was actually narrating a race in progress. We’d been walking along the lake all that time, and we hadn’t crossed paths with the racers yet.


Down the path, with the ongoing race showing on the big screen.

(In retrospect, if I had math skills, I should’ve had a better idea of the lake size: The plans include extending the lake by just 200 more yards to make it a full 2 km course, qualifying it to bid for hosting a World Cup in the next few years. Hence the project’s slogan, “2,000 meters by 2011 creates World Cup contender.”)


Teams push for the finish in Friday's preliminaries.

Earlier Friday I’d interviewed Bruce Smith, executive director of Boston’s Community Rowing and former head coach of USA’s national team. Since building the Boston club to the largest of its kind in the world, Bruce is going to be a Sarasota regular as the chief advisor to the Benderson project. Bruce has been a boon for the sport, taking it out of Ivy League exclusivity and making it accessible for everyone. (Literally, everyone: the Boston club has an adaptability program that caters to all manner of physical and mental disabilities.)  You can read more about him in our June “Champions of Fitness” feature, but for starters, rowers burn insane calories.

 But it wasn’t just the sheer volume of the regatta that had me awed. The coordination of the thing seemed impeccable—from starting line precision to chase boats to finish line official results, the announcer, volunteers everywhere and not a whiff of confusion or panic from anyone. There was even big screen displaying the races in progress. When there wasn’t a race on? It showed colorful, professional TV-style ads for Sarasota, selling the city to the hundreds of people of all ages within earshot. Kudos, SCVB.


Coaches, volunteers and media luminaries (ahem) enjoy the welcome dinner,

while the big screen shows more scenes from beautiful Sarasota.


The competitive environment always gets me good and pumped—especially when it’s run so seamlessly and professionally. But Bruce Smith also pointed out another equally attractive side of rowing (and the park, too): the natural setting. Plans for the park include kayaking and fishing access, plus wildlife viewing areas and a path around the lake. Before the last boats were out of the water on Friday, Big J, CCB and I were making plans to get back out there with our bikes and take a tour.