You can sense an Olympic atmosphere at the regatta

2020 Olympic Games Begin One Year From Today • By Nick Gandy

On the date which begins the one-year-out countdown to the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, it would be hard to find a sporting event in the State of Florida matching the international sights and sounds of the 2019 World Rowing Under 23 Championships at Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota/Bradenton.

Television broadcasters announce over the PA systems teams and athletes from six of the seven continents of the world. Among the countries called out as they crossed the finish lines were Austria, Paraguay, Japan, South Africa, New Zealand and the United States.

Flags from Canada, France and Mexico hang from guardrails and a blow-up kangaroo from Australia occupies a seat in the grandstand.

Fans shout encouragement in a variety of languages from beach chairs at the edge of the 2000 meter course as the boats glide through the water toward the finish line.

In the first of five days of events at Nathan Benderson Park, 32 races started and finished in the 2 hours and 50 minutes of competition Wednesday morning.  In the last two heats, rain started to fall and within 10 minutes of the final boat crossing the line, a good-old-fashioned Florida thunderstorm rolled in from the Gulf of Mexico.

Crews of one, two and four athletes reached as many as 42 strokes per minute from the south end of the park to the north.  Rowing in less than ideal conditions with a strong crosswind blowing in from the west most of the morning, the fastest time of the day was turned in by a British four-man boat in 5 minutes, 50 seconds.

Within the next year, a handful of rowers from Team USA and other countries will prepare for the 2020 Olympic Games, at the USRowing men’s training center in Oakland, Calif., and the women’s training center in Princeton, N.J. But the majority of the U.S. athletes competing in the Under 23 World Championships will form the foundation of the 2024 U.S. Olympic team to compete in Paris, according to Patrick McNerney, president of USRowing.

With nearly 800 athletes representing 52 countries, local organizers welcome the influx of international travelers to the Southwest Florida destination. Shelby Connett, Director of Sports for the Sarasota County Sports Commission confirmed over 5,000 hotel room nights have been booked locally, beginning as early as July 12.

“Since most of these athletes come from all over the world, we like to let them know they are on a world stage here in Sarasota County,” Connett said of the event that has been almost two years in the making.

This 2019 event is not Sarasota/Bradenton's and Nathan Benderson Park’s first go-round hosting the international rowing community.  For three consecutive years, the 600-acre park has hosted a World Rowing event.  The 2017 World Rowing Championships welcomed athletes from 63 countries to the park and the 2018 World Rowing Masters Regatta featured more than 3,000 athletes age 27 and over.

Besides the three consecutive years of World Rowing events, the park and area have provided Olympic athletes world class training facilities to prepare for similar climates in other international competitions.

“Prior to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, rowers from a few European countries trained at Nathan Benderson Park to acclimate to the climate they would experience in South America,” said Rob Wells, director of sports for the Bradenton Area Sports Commission. “We also had soccer players working out at the Premier Sports Complex and BMX racers at the Sarasota BMX track.”

Following today’s heat races, teams and athletes will advance to the semifinal or repechage rounds that begin on Friday.  Beginning at 9:00 a.m. on Thursday, more heat races will be contested at Nathan Benderson Park.  The final race begins at 11:55 a.m.  Visit www.nathanbendersonpark.org for more information.

The regatta can also be seen worldwide on Thursday at www.worldrowing.com for a live streaming broadcast and on ESPN3 in the United States.