ROCKING THE BOAT
Nathan Benderson Park is best rowing venue in North America
Nathan Benderson Park is best rowing venue in North America
The reflective surface of the lake at Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota, Florida, shines brightly enough each day to catch the attention of drivers on nearby Interstate 75. Maybe you’ve caught a glimpse of a boat crew pushing along the sheen, or perhaps of a pack of cyclists biking the perimeter. But this expansive man-made water body near the Sarasota County and Manatee County line serves as more than highway scenery. Here sits the greatest competitive rowing course in North America, one of the premier sculling venues in the world, and in less than a year, the best paddlers from around the globe will flock to these waters for the 2017 World Rowing Championships.
It’s hard to believe—considering just a few years ago, this sporty setting served as little more than a road ditch. Transportation workers dug the lake years ago as a simple borrow pit while mining material for adjacent Cattlemen Road. Only in the past decade did visionaries reimagine the site as a locale for athletic feats. The public park, owned by Sarasota County and managed by Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates, lures the attention of local health nuts and Olympic-class athletes.
Government leaders and construction teams from Benderson Development extended the lake in 2009 to accommodate a 2,100-meter rowing course, suddenly making a venue capable of holding sanctioned rowing events for international competition. “On the one hand, this could be used by an Olympic gold medalist for a rowing course, or on the other hand, it could be used by a novice running their first race,” notes Robert Sullivan, president and CEO of Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates. “Not every baseball player can go out on Yankee Stadium and play baseball.”
The rowing park, which has been bolstered by some $40 million in public investments, held a grand opening in 2014, following years of improvements to turn the decades-old water body into a community resource. The venue came out
In less than a year, the best paddlers from around the globe will flock to these waters for the 2017 World Rowing Championships.
of a public-private partnership between Sarasota County and Benderson Development, the same company that built The Mall at University Town Center next door and developed most of the commercial property in University Park. The park is named for the company’s late founder, Nathan Benderson.
The sporting potential immediately drew international attention. US-Rowing started holding competitions at the venue even before the official opening to introduce the water to the world. The International Federation of Rowing Associates in 2013 selected the park to host the 2017 World Rowing Championships, an event expected to draw 1,000 athletes from 70 countries and 40,000 spectators. The event is expected to have an economic impact that rivals that of a Super Bowl.
“Sarasota has done something for rowing in America that is truly remarkable—creating, from scratch, a world-class rowing venue that will attract the top athletes from around the world,” says Glenn Merry, CEO of US-Rowing. At this point, a countdown clock can be found on the site, building anticipation for the global competition, which kicks off Sept. 24 and runs through Oct. 1.
Already, the park has hosted its share of high-profile competitions. The U.S. Olympic qualifiers for the Summer Olympics in Rio were held in Sarasota last spring, and a series of pentathlon events also used the park in the past two years. Katherine Harris, former Florida secretary of state, chaired the 2014 Modern Pentathlon World Cup Finals at Benderson Park, and last year chaired the last pentathlon events before the Rio Olympics. She marvels at the chance to bring world-class events to the region. “We hosted our finals 100 days out from the Olympics,” Harris says. “To see the crowds cheer for the athletes and to see the young people competing and see what that means for them, it was incredibly educational.”
Sullivan envisions a growing number of events using the park besides those involved in rowing. Dragonboat races already take place on the lake, which is large and deep enough to host yachts and sailboats. And with U.S. Masters Swimming also headquartered in the region, there has been growing interest in open water swimming.
Owners of the park say it will only improve over time. Construction began last year on a new finish line tower, an island structure designed by Sarasota modern architect Guy Peterson working with a team of University of Florida graduate students. Sullivan believes once work is completed on the tower, it will boost enthusiasm and further broadcast the park as an enviable site for major events.
Certainly it sets the site apart from other communities such as Chattanooga, Tennessee, which host rowing tournaments in the U.S. but often end up just erecting bleachers near riverfronts. In addition to being able to house crowds in the park instead of in an urban environment, rowers prefer the still waters that are self-contained and not part of any other flowing system. Best of all, environmental regulations make it impossible for another community to simply dig a lake as large as the one made at Benderson Park so many years ago.
The course to date has been put to use by local teams such as the Sarasota Scullers, national stars including Harvard University’s rowing team, and international players such as the Cuban Olympic rowing team and Angel Rodriguez, the first Cuban rower to medal at an international event. Indeed, the relatively young course has quickly been established as a go-to water body for rowers from around the Western world.
Women’s crew teams (above and below) regularly train and compete at Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota. The 2017 World Rowing Championships at Benderson Park begin in late September.
Kayakers, both competitive or recreational, also enjoy Nathan Benderson Park, as do cyclists, roller- bladers, joggers and walkers on a perimeter trail. U. S. qualifiers for Summer Olympic Games in Rio were held in Sarasota, and pentathlon events in...