SARASOTA — Courtney Berger knows there isn’t anyone in the field who can race the course better than she can.
She knows the various challenges the course poses and can visualize every twist and turn with her eyes closed.
After all, Berger is the only one on her team who grew up navigating the waterway at Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota.
Now, the 2010 Sarasota High graduate and former Sarasota Crew coxswain will use her rowing experience to help lead her Nova Southeastern University team.
The college junior will return to her home course this week to compete in the 2013 Sunshine State Conference Rowing Championship April 26.
“I love racing on the Sarasota course,” Berger says. “There’s nothing like knowing nobody on the course can race it better than I can. I know it better than I know the back of my hand.
“I just want to reiterate my excitement, because the course is something I’ve been watching and practicing on for years,” Berger says. “There’s nowhere else I’d rather race.”
Berger got her first taste of rowing in middle school when she attended several rowing camps. Following the completion of the eighth-grade rowing program with the Sarasota Crew, Berger joined the Crew’s novice program as a freshman.
Berger spent the next four years rowing for the Crew, for which she placed sixth at the Head of Charles in the Varsity 4+ and finished second in the southeast regionals and ninth at nationals in the Men’s Varsity 8+.
“I like the competition, knowing you can be neck and neck with a boat and the last stroke can determine who’s going to win,” she says.
Berger has raced both 4- and 8-man boats, but she admits the 8-man boats provide the biggest challenge.
“That’s traditionally the biggest race of the day,” Berger says. “That’s the boat that each team tries to fill first. It’s the most competitive.”
Over the past three years, Berger has helped lead Nova Southeastern to second- and fourth-place finishes in the novice 8 crew and second varsity 8 races, respectively, at the Southern Intercollegiate Rowing Association Championships.
As a freshman, Berger won the 2011 Sunshine State Conference Female Sportsmanship Award and the 2010-11 NCAA Female Student-Athlete National Sportsmanship Award for leading her team to the aid of a Rollins College rower who was in distress after the SIRA Championships in Oak Ridge, Tenn.
Berger was racing in a semifinal race when she and her freshman 8 teammates noticed a girl in the other boat was having trouble breathing and lost consciousness. The girls rowed over and Berger jumped in the other team’s boat. With encouragement and guidance from her teammates, Berger helped save the girl’s life.
“Every day people will respond to other people needing help,” Berger says. “I was in the moment and in a certain spot within the boat that I was able to jump up and help. It’s not always seen in other sports as a good thing to help your competitors; but rowing is such a team sport that it would have been an embarrassment not to help.
“It means that rowing is what I always thought it would be,” Berger says. “It just reiterates that rowing really is a classy sport. You’re not out (to embarrass) anyone. You’re there to help them no matter what.”
Most recently, Berger led the Sharks to a third-place finish in the Grand Final for the Women’s Varsity 4 at the SIRA Championships April 21, in Oak Ridge, Tenn. The Division II Sharks raced against a combined 24 Division I and II teams.
Following this weekend’s race, Berger will prepare for Nova Southeastern’s two final regattas of the season — the Dad Vail Regatta and the NCAA Championships — before spending the summer training for her senior season.
“It was always a goal of minewhen I was younger to be a collegiate rower,” Berger says. “Being here and now being the moment, I’m not really thinking about it ending because that would be sad.”