True Floridian Smith no stranger to regatta site

Tampa's Luke Smith, foreground, and Alex Damjanovic row their lightweight double scull at the 2019 World Rowing Under 23 Championships Thursday, July 25, 2019. USRowing photo
Tampa's Luke Smith, foreground, and Alex Damjanovic row their lightweight double scull at the 2019 World Rowing Under 23 Championships Thursday, July 25, 2019. USRowing photo

Tampa Native Has Raced and Trained at Nathan Benderson Park for Years • By Nick Gandy

In a state almost completely surrounded by water and the site of one of the top rowing facilities in the country, one has to look long and hard to find a true Floridian on the 72-person roster of the USRowing team competing at the 2019 World Rowing Under 23 Championships.

But there’s one.

Luke Smith was born in Tampa, attended Tampa Prep High School and calls Tampa his hometown, even though he’s spending a majority of his time lately in upstate New York rowing for the Colgate University Raiders team.

Smith finds himself on roster featuring athletes from 18 different states and 30 colleges around the U.S. and Canada.

Growing up an hour north of the World Championships site, needless to say, this event is not his first trip to Nathan Benderson Park.

“We came here when I was a freshman in high school, said the now 21-year old Smith. It was 2013 and things were just getting started. It was a nice course to row on but I just remember it being super muddy. It was kind of a nightmare.”

Fast forward six years. NBP is a state-of-the-art facility and Smith could be called the top rower in Florida among natives of the Sunshine State.

A baseball player in his youth, he went to a summer rowing camp between his middle and high school years at the urging of his mother to begin his road to the USRowing U23 team.The original draw to the sport was it made him “fit really quickly.”

After a successful freshman year where he and his teammates won the “Freshman Four,” state high school championships, the small team at the Tampa private school continued to strive. So much that Smith was recruited to Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., where he now is majoring in economics and political science.

During the 2019 rowing season at Colgate, a college with fewer than 3,000 students, Smith and his teammates turned in one of the best performances in school history. The 8X team, featuring Smith and his partner at the Under 23s, Alex Damjanovic, advanced to the C Finals, another program first.

“That established us as one of the top programs in the country,” Smith said. “It’s pretty interesting because it’s kind of like Tampa Prep. It’s a small squad with only 13 rowers and we finished just below Penn (with more than 70 team members).

While Smith and Damjanovic have experienced a good level of success against U.S. college rowers and internationally, Wednesday’s lightweight double sculls race was not one of their better performances.

“We royally botched the race today,” he said of their fourth place finish among the five teams in the heat. “But, honestly, that’s kind of how we do it. Everyone knows, don’t expect much from us in the first race. As the races go on we get better and better. We just need to get our bearings.”

In Wednesday morning’s race, the German duo of Jonathan Schrieber and Eric Magnus Paul got off to a hot start and never relinquished the lead. Smith and Damjanovic fell behind teams from Australia and Poland and could never move out of fourth place.

In Friday’s repechage round, Smith and Damjanovic placed third in the four-boat race to advance to Saturday’s morning’s semifinal. The duo posted a time of 6:39.580, which was 8 seconds behind the heat winner, Spain, and seven seconds behind the second-place Hong Kong team. Their time on Friday’s race was 3 seconds faster than their Thursday time.

In the Sunday ‘B’ final, they took fifth with a time of 6:48.290, 10 seconds behind the winning Australia boat.

Smith will spend the rest of his summer planning for his post-Colgate future. Following his senior year at Colgate, he wants to venture “across the pond” for post-graduate work and further rowing opportunities at the University of London or Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.

“He’s a good boy and very ambitious,” said his father, Stewart Smith, the president of Alto Construction in Tampa. “We’re going over to take a look at those schools on Aug. 7. It has been a pleasure to be a part of all of this.”

Then there’s the possibility of continuing his future on the water in the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. However, that wasn’t first and foremost on Smith’s mind.

“What we’re doing now is just trying to do the best we can here,” he said. “See if it’s in reach for us. There’s one boat here that will indicate what our chances are on how we finish based on their finish.”

The boat Smith indicates is the Swiss team of Mathias Fernandez and Jan Schaeuble that was in the third heat of the lightweight men’s double sculls and posted a time of 6:22.630, 21 seconds faster than Smith and Damjanovic.

To encourage Smith in his upcoming races, he has plenty of family and friends either staying in Sarasota hotels or making the 45-minute drive back and forth to Tampa before and after his races.

Until recently, Stewart Smith rode a bike on the sidewalk that parallels the Nathan Benderson Park course. He won’t be able to do that for the remaining races at the World Rowing Under 23 Championships.

“I don’t have a bike anymore,” he said. “I gave it to his coach (Kahled Sanad).”

Sanad is not only Smith’s coach on the USRowing Under 23 team but at Colgate.

Luke Smith began his rowing journey on the water of Tampa’s Hillsborough River and has achieved great success on the water at Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota/Bradenton. His ambitious future, fueled by the sport of rowing, his future success looks to continue across the water of the Atlantic Ocean.I