ROCK­ING THE BOAT

Nathan Ben­der­son Park is best row­ing venue in North Amer­ica

RSWLiving - - News - BY JA­COB OGLES

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...

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