I’ve always had the reputation of being something of a big athletic supporter, and in this capacity I have made a study of all the classic Sarasota sports, starting with golf, then tennis, and finally the latest obsession, pickleball. But I never paid much attention to that other new upstart, rowing. Here we are, living in one of the rowing capitals of the world, and I know nothing about it.
So when I found out that the Under 23 World Rowing Championships were being held at Nathan Benderson Park out by the mall, I decided the time had come. I turned to my old friend Betsy Mitchell. She knows all about it, being a world champion rower.
Many of you probably know Betsy already, as she is one of the great old-time Sarasotans. Her grandmother was Marge Van Antwerp, the Betty Schoenbaum of her day (the 1980s), rich, regal, benevolent and very philanthropic. Betsy had a rich girl’s upbringing and graduated from the Ringling School of Art. She was just starting her career as an interior decorator when she married Bill Mitchell, who would later run the Van Wezel. They were cousins—“kissing cousins,” as Betsy used to say.
When Betsy had a couple of kids and then, in her early 50s, marriage behind her, she decided she needed more exercise and tried rowing. “I thought I’d just paddle around and look at the birds and dolphins,” she says. But she was such a natural that she soon began competing, then winning races, then winning championships. All the more remarkable because her left leg is stiff and shorter than the right—the result of a trampoline accident at the Swiss boarding school she attended.
When she’s not competing as one of the country’s leading para-rowers, Betsy helps out at all the regattas all over the world as a referee and volunteer. For the Under 23 World Championship she was assigned to “doping,” the procedure by which the athletes were tested for performance-enhancing drugs.
I begged to help. It sounded perfect for me. I would escort randomly selected rowers from the dock after the race and bring them to the doping tent, actually a small trailer-like building. There they were asked a lot of questions to make absolutely certain they were who they said they were, and then they were escorted by a doping professional to the Porta-John outside where they produced a urine sample. The whole process sounded terribly exciting. The very integrity of the entire sport was in my hands. As our supervisor said, “Don’t let them out of your sight!”
“Them” were the cream of the world’s rowers, up to age 23. They were from all over the world (52 countries were represented), but most were European. In fact, never have I seen so many Europeans gathered in Sarasota. Everybody, and everything, it seemed, was European—the fans and relatives who had come to cheer them on, the stylish sweats and hoodies in the vendors’ stands, the race announcer with the British accent. It was so European that I assumed that the “Finish Tower” I kept hearing reference to was some sort of rowing building they have in Finland instead of the tower at the finish line, which is what it turned out to be.
In between keeping an eagle eye on my charges, I got to watch the races. They turned out to be surprisingly exciting. Since the Benderson lake, an old shell excavation pit, is long and narrow, cameras are placed along the way with drones flying overhead, and all this is broadcast on a big screen near the finish line. The boats zip along like magic, everybody in perfect sync, so effortless-looking, even though the announcer pointed out during one particularly long race, “There is utter pain out there.”
Maybe that’s why the award ceremonies are so exuberant. Girls bearing trays of medals parade out and little children raise the flags of the winning countries. A county commissioner gives the winners their medals and then the national anthem of the winning country is played. The Italians won so many I can now sing along to “Fratelli d'Italia.”
But the best part of the competition is the rowers themselves. They are the most amazing-looking young people you’ve ever seen, both the boys and the girls. Not only are they at their physical peak and in the full bloom of youthful beauty, but they have the classic “rower’s body” that so inspired the ancient Greek sculptors, who used them as models to create the template of human perfection: long legs and arms, sinewy and with the perfect amount of muscle. No fat anywhere. A solid, firm, powerful core. And all those hours in the sun have added beautiful hints of gold to the gossamer whisper of down occasionally glimpsed on a honey brown neck or an arm at rest and repose, languid at the moment but ready to spring to life once again and firmly grasp an oar…
Where was I? Oh, yes, the rowing competition. No time to linger at the finish line, however; I had to hurry back to the doping tent where I belonged. Things were winding down. There was only one guy left, a German. He was sitting there, sucking down another Gatorade, waiting for the right moment. Five or six officials were also sitting there waiting. He reached for an orange sitting on a desk. It was politely but firmly pulled from his grasp. No telling what might be in it.
Meanwhile Betsy, superwoman though she may be, was still trying to figure out how to work the iPad they’d given her to track athletes. She had just returned from a trip to Woodmere, Long Island, to see her new granddaughter. Betsy’s daughter Marjorie—named after you know who—is now known as Miriam, having converted to the Orthodox branch of Judaism. This means that Betsy, in addition to all her other accomplishments, was mother-of-the-bride at a Jewish Orthodox wedding. It just goes to show—you never know what life may have in store next.
One thing you should have in store is the next championship rowing competition at Nathan Benderson. It’s Sarasota’s coolest sporting event. The athleticism is world class, and the chic and sexy atmosphere, all played out under Guy Peterson’s spectacular Finish Tower, makes for an unforgettable afternoon. Check out nathanbendersonpark.org for upcoming events. And don’t forget—bring sunblock.