Fifteen hundred elite high school rowers from across the country will descend on Nathan Benderson Park this month for the USRowing Youth National Championships—the first of a three-year commitment to the 600-acre county park in partnership with its operator, the nonprofit Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates (SANCA). NBP’s international reputation rests on rowing, but surprisingly that comprises just 25 percent of events here. “There’s never a dull moment,” says SANCA’s Doug Jessmer.
Rowers participate in qualifications regattas throughout May in order to reach the Youth Nationals, set for June 6-9. Last year, 380 crews from 149 rowing clubs in 27 states and the District of Columbia competed in the big tourney, which was held on Lake Natoma in Gold River, California.
On The Books
Eleven rowing tournaments are booked at NBP in 2019. Next up July 24-28 are the World Rowing Under 23 Championships, which took place last year in Poznań, Poland. Rowers are expected to flock to Sarasota from as far away as China and Russia.
The lake comprises 400 acres of the 600-acre county park. To see its full sweep, visit maps.google and choose the satellite view. That long narrow line nearly dividing the lake north to south is a wave attenuator that both keeps the water calm for rowers and is a platform for a camera-equipped Smart car. During tourneys, “it’s like a busy road,” says Jessmer.
The first organized regatta at Nathan Benderson Park took place in 2009, but the facility catapulted onto the world stage in 2017, when nearly 1,000 athletes from all over the world competed in the 2017 World Rowing Championships. It’s the only Class A FISA-certified course in North America. At its deepest, in the middle, it’s 25 feet deep.
Spectators are encouraged. So how can you get the most out of watching an elite rowing tournament? “The crew that’s making it look easy is most likely the one doing the best job,” according to a webpage full of handy tips at usrowing.org/race-watching-tips.
More than 125,000 people attended 104 public events at NBP in 2018. Run-walk events made up 40 percent of them, including The Lucky Leprechaun 5K in March, the Fireworks 4-Miler on July 3, and the Florida Turkey Trot Thanksgiving morning. (Last year’s had 2,200 participants.) “People can be passionate about the park,” says Jessmer.
Can anyone row on the lake when events aren’t scheduled? Yes. You can drop a paddleboard, canoe, shell, a sailboat, “anything that doesn’t have an engine on it,” says Jessmer. And don’t worry about gators. The lake is swept regularly for them.