Sporting Life

Sarasota is a Hub for Recreational and Amateur Sports

“Tampa has professional sports. But for recreational and amateur sports, it’s hard to beat what’s going on in Sarasota.”

By David Hackett February 4, 2019 Published in the Health 2019 issue of Sarasota Magazine

Pat Van Stedum

Image: Jenn Soos

When Pat Van Stedum moved to Sarasota from Atlanta 12 years ago, she fell into her favorite sport, tennis, playing three or more times a week, meeting new friends and staying fit. Then, four years ago, Van Stedum became captivated by a sport she had never seen, let alone participated in.

“I was bitten by the dragon,” says Van Stedum, 70. “Now, I think of myself as a warrior on the water.”

Van Stedum is among 50 women, ranging in age from their 40s to 80, paddling for the SIS dragon boat team. SIS stands for Survivors In Sync; team members are breast cancer survivors. Dragon boats are long vessels, propelled by 20 paddlers, as well as a drummer at the bow offering cadence to the paddlers, and a sweep, or steerer, at the rear. The women train three days a week at Nathan Benderson Park and compete in competitions, including one last summer in Florence, Italy, in which they placed among the best in the world.

“It’s a great workout and great fun being with these women,” Van Stedum says. “Being part of this team has added so much joy to my life. I still play tennis, but dragon boat racing is my passion.”

Dragon boat racing is one of scores of recreational sports blossoming in Sarasota. Where a generation ago, adult athletes faced a binary choice—golf or tennis?—today’s competitors have a galaxy of options: How about polo? Water or horseback? Croquet, anyone? There’s a club with its own field and scores of competitors wielding mallets and wearing classy white uniforms. Kickball has become an adult sport, with hundreds of players involved in a local league.

And even in a land that almost never freezes, ice hockey is thriving, with 40 teams competing at the Ellenton Ice and Sport Complex, and hundreds of players vying for ice time in pick-up games.

Recreational sports were such an afterthought in Sarasota it was not until 2016 that the city reinstated its parks department after a 28-year hiatus. Today, the department has nearly 150 full- and part-time employees, is acquiring parks from the county, upgrading facilities and seeing a surge in participation. And still it may not be enough. So many people have picked up the new game of pickleball, a paddle sport combining elements of badminton, tennis and table tennis, that the city’s courts “are bursting at the seams, even in the off season,” says Mark Hamilton, the department’s supervisor of athletics.

SoCo Club Sport, a company that organizes leagues for soccer, kickball, basketball and other sports, has seen its participation grow five-fold in the Sarasota area over the past decade, with 5,000 adults now competing.

“Things have changed here,” says Shelby Connett, director of sports for Visit Sarasota. “These days it feels as if we have every sport under the sun. Tampa has the professional sports. But for recreational and amateur sports, it’s hard to beat what’s going on in Sarasota.”

Norm Foster

Image: Jenn Soos

All ages welcome

Organizers and athletes point to several factors driving the increase in participation and in the variety of sports. Age barriers are being broken, with athletes staying competitive in their 60s, 70s and even 80s. A growing number of women who were among the first generation to play organized sports in schools are continuing to compete as they get older. And young professionals are flocking to sports to stay fit, network and socialize.

Mike Bergquist, a retired plumbing inspector who moved here recently from the Chicago area, fits the profile of an athlete for whom the sun refuses to set. At the age of 62, he swims for the Sarasota Sharks and plays the grueling sport of water polo for the Sun Coast Water Polo Club, which was founded three years ago.

“When I started playing water polo in 1994 in the Chicago area, I thought it would be great if I could keep doing it until I was 40,” Bergquist recalls. “Then it was 45. Then 50 came and went and I’m still in the water, holding my own. I do think people today are redefining aging when it comes to athletics. We’re showing you don’t have to stop just because you reach a certain age.”

At the Ellenton ice rink, so many older hockey players are participating that separate divisions have been formed for 50 and over, 60 and over and even 70 and over. Among those players, Norm Foster has earned the title of Sarasota’s Mr. Hockey. A native of Canada who relocated permanently here in the mid-1990s, Foster says, “I was waiting at the front door” when the Ellenton rink opened in 1998. He was soon asked to coordinate the pick-up games.

Fifteen years ago, that amounted to two games a week, open to all ages. But Foster was convinced that more older players wanted to keep skating, if they could compete against players in their age group and if the rules were modified to prevent hard contact like checking against the boards, which would be dangerous for older bones. Foster’s proposal for age tiers at first garnered skepticism.

“Back then, if you told someone you wanted to play hockey in your 50s, they looked at you as some kind of fool,” Foster says.

Today, there are nine pick-up games a week during the winter at Ellenton and five games even in the heart of summer, with separate divisions for players in their 50s, 60s and 70s. Foster says that it is not far-fetched that an 80-and-over division may be needed in a few years. Indeed, Foster himself is 81 and he still plays as a left defenseman five days a week in the summer and seven games a week during the winter, often competing in the open games with players 18 years and up.

“Why would I quit doing something that gives me such enjoyment and keeps me fit?” he says.

The courts and playing fields of Sarasota are also seeing a surge of female athletes like Tiffany Hamilton, 38, a former college soccer player in North Carolina. Hamilton balances her job as a real estate agent with marriage (her husband, Mark, supervises athletics for the parks department) and raising young children. But on Friday nights, she leaves it all on the field, playing pick-up soccer matches at the Robert Taylor fields.

“We call it Friday Night Friendlies, and after a long week, it’s my sanity,” Hamilton says. “We started out with just a few players and now have more than 40. Sometimes we have three matches going at the same time. It costs $2 and everyone gets a bracelet with a number on it, showing what team they’re on that night. It’s co-ed. We don’t keep score, but the matches are competitive and a great workout. Parents play, while children run around on the sidelines.”

Competing and staying fit are not the only factors driving participation, says Chris Giebner, co-owner of SoCo Club Sport. Young professionals, Giebner says, are looking for activities in which they can make new friends and socialize, without facing the pressure that highly skilled sports such as golf require.

“I think that’s why kickball is one of our most popular leagues,” Giebner says. “Everyone is starting at about the same place. No one was a former kickball star in college. It’s fun and friendly, a good place to socialize.”

Tiffany Hamilton

Image: Jenn Soos

New fields and courts

Another reason that recreational sports are surging in popularity in Sarasota is that more fields, courts and training areas are being built. In 2016, the city spent $2.1 million on the 93,600-square-foot fields at the Robert Taylor Community Complex in north Sarasota, the first public fields in Sarasota with artificial turf. The lit fields allow for games from morning until well into the night. In Venice, the Sarasota County Croquet Club built six fields at Wellfield Park, which the club says is the largest public croquet facility in the United States. The 600-acre Nathan Benderson Park, which includes a 400-acre lake, has become a hub for water sports. Much of the attention has gone to premier events, such as hosting the World Rowing Championships in 2017, but the park has also been a springboard for recreational athletes to start rowing and paddling. The park offers lessons and a variety of teams.

The Legacy Trail, a 12.5-mile paved recreational trail running between Venice and Sarasota, opened in 2008, has become a haven for bikers, runners, skaters and walkers—safely set apart from Florida’s public roads, which have long been among the most dangerous in the country for pedestrians. In November, Sarasota County voters approved an amendment to add nine miles to the Legacy Trail, extending it north to Payne Park in the heart of Sarasota.

“People are coming to the Sarasota area not just for the weather, but for the recreational opportunities,” says Nicole Rissler, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department. “The investments that are being made in parks, fields, courts and other recreational areas are finding a lot of support.”

Even with the new and upgraded facilities, the sheer number of recreational athletes is creating a tension with limited space. Basketball and volleyball players vie for the same courts. Water polo players try to nudge room in the swimming pools.

Pickleball Craze

And pickleball, which wasn’t even on the sporting radar five years ago, is growing so rapidly that it’s claiming court space from traditional sports such as tennis and basketball. Adding dedicated pickleball facilities now tops the agenda for recreation departments. At Sarasota County courts, the number of pickleball players has nearly doubled in just four years, increasing from 13,195 to 24,599. And that does not even take in all the games taking place at private and city clubs and other venues. At the city of Sarasota’s Robert Taylor complex, for instance, the number of players has close to doubled in the past three years.

Ann Mitchell, 71, reflects the changing sports landscape, where the choice is no longer between golf and tennis. A golfer for 45 years, Mitchell has a 13 handicap and resides in a home overlooking the ninth hole of the Tara Golf and Country Club in Bradenton. But these days, her passion is pickleball.

“In golf, you can have a bad day and it’s not much fun,” Mitchell says. “But in pickleball, I always have fun. Everybody can get out there. Women can take on men. We have players in their 80s and even 90s holding their own. Everyone is from somewhere else down here, so it’s a great place to meet people.”

Another virtue of pickleball, Mitchell says, is that almost everyone comes to the game new and, with a smaller court, it’s easier to learn than tennis, but is still a good aerobic workout.

“I hate going to the gym,” Mitchell says. “But put a ball out there and I’ll run for it. It’s funny that five years ago, I don’t think I’d even heard of pickleball. Now, I play between three and five times a week and it’s one of the great pleasures in my life.” 

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