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World's Best Rowers To Converge On New Sarasota Course

The best rowers in the world will converge on Sarasota at the end of September. This will be the biggest competition to date at a new facility built in the shadow of Interstate 75.

Nick Edwards lowers his dart-shaped boat into the lake, it's calmness a contrast to the nearby swirl of Interstate 75.

Edwards used to row with the competitive team Sarasota Crew. He attends Columbia University, but is back in his hometown to give the course a test run with his single person boat.

"As we're getting in here, we're going to push the port oar out into the water," he says. "One foot into the boat... make sure my seat's in the right position... sit down in the seat, that's very warm... and then I'm going to put both of my feet lined up in my shoes... You always want to make sure your handles are even in the middle, so you don't tip to one side or fall out... I'm just going to give it a shove and we'll go."

Edwards places his hands at chest level, with the oars just an inch above the water, and pulls back in a quick rhythm. He quickly reaches the speed of a jogger.

Nearby is Bob Whitford. He's director of operations at Nathan Benderson Park, which is owned by Sarasota County but privately managed.  

Whitford is a former U.S. national rowing team coach, so while he's not coaching, he can't help but bark tips to Edwards from the safety of his powerboat.

Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
Bob Whitford is director of operations at Nathan Benderson Park

"Yeah, I'm figuring this out," Edwards replies to the coaching. "I haven't done this in quite some time. As long as I look good..."

Sarasota County is bound to look good after pumping in more than $20 million in tourism tax money to transform what was once a rock quarry borrow pit into a world-class race course. Its signature is a 3.5 mile loop, with a six-story tower at the finish line that can be seen for miles around.

Event spokesman Max Winitz says the upcoming World Rowing Championships is the sport's pinnacle.

"It is the Super Bowl, it is the World Cup, it is the World Series for the sport of rowing," he said. "And it's an amazing opportunity, not just for Sarasota-Bradenton, but for the entire United States to host this event here on home soil."

The lake is open to the public but has been scientifically calibrated for rowers. It boasts 45-degree angle underwater slopes. A $1 million wave attenuator bisects the lake, making sure there's as few waves as possible.

It's been a while since Edwards rowed at this park during a state championship. Now he usually rows on the turbulent Harlem River in New York, so I ask him: are there any challenges here?

Credit Julio Ochoa / WUSF News
Nick Edwards

"I remember a couple of times when I was racing state championships here, there's a gap in the trees at about 1,500 meters, and whenever you get past those and there's a breeze coming from the west side, you really just get hit," he reminisced.

"And as soon as you get through there and get to the next tree line, it starts to calm back down. So a lot of times, if you're smart enough and you know it's coming, you push right at that moment when everyone else who's getting hit doesn't expect it, and you're up by the time they catch on."

Nearby, Nathan Benderson Park program manager Meghan Farrellis cleaning her own single racing boat. It's shaped like a dart, 30 feet long, but its fiberglass design means it's about the weight of a kayak.

"There's a lot of race strategy, in terms of timing when to do it," she explained. "Our center distance is the same - everyone's racing 2,000 meters - and they're actually called moves, when you go above your cadence, and push yourself a little harder. There's standard ones you do typically, a burst or a Power 20 at the beginning of your race. And then everyone obviously sprints at the end. But there's different moves you can do at different times to try and get an advantage."

When she's out on the lake, Farrell says you don't have to think about anything else.

"There's so much you have to concentrate on when you're rowing that it makes you completely present. It just helps ground you," she said. "I think that's why a lot of people gravitate toward it. It's therapeutic, it's very repetitive, you can get a rhythm and it's a really nice release for a lot of people. It's hard to have a bad time out on a beautiful body of water."

There's little doubt the people out on the water on this day appreciate the sport. Park organizers hope they may attract a few new fans during the championship, and say 70 percent of the tickets have already been sold.

Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
View of the race course from the top of the finish line tower.

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.