SARASOTA — It’s been embedded in her mind for as long as she can remember.
It’s a source of comfort and a source of pure exhaustion. It’s a single black line that stretches the entire length of the pool — the lone visual element Sarasota resident Rachel Bowman encounters from the moment she dives into the crystal-blue water until she resurfaces several yards down the lane line.
There was a time when the thick black line’s monotonous repetition wore down Bowman. But, now, several years later, it’s a sign of a sport she’s harbored a passion for since she was a little girl.
A native of St. Croix, Bowman grew up swimming in the open waters of the Caribbean Sea.
“There were very few outlets for kids (in St. Croix),” Bowman says. “I love swimming in open water. It was like an extended snorkeling trip.”
Bowman swam competitively in high school and college before taking a break from the sport to join the Peace Corps.
While living in Latin America, Bowman would occasionally venture out into the open water and go for a swim, but it was a far cry from her days as a Division III athlete.
Bowman returned to the pool after moving back to the U.S., but it didn’t take long for the black line to wear her down. She ended up joining a Masters co-ed water polo team, where she eventually met her husband, Roger.
The two played up and down the Eastern seaboard before moving to California where they continued to play the sport.
“Water polo is a brutal sport, but it was a lot of fun,” Bowman says.
It wasn’t until Bowman moved to Florida that she started swimming laps again. She encouraged her husband to get into the pool and join the Sarasota YMCA Sharks Masters Swim Team. Bowman saw how much fun her husband was having, and, in 2007, she decided to join the team, too.
Now, the Sarasota YMCA Sharks Masters swimmer is preparing to hit the pool once again — this time as both a competitor and a volunteer.
Bowman is the volunteer coordinator for the Pan-American Masters Championships, which run through June 13, at the Selby Aquatic Center, in Sarasota. It’s the first time Bowman has participated in the Pan-American Masters Championships.
As the volunteer coordinator, Bowman is responsible for putting together all of the different groups of volunteers that are needed to make the event work.
This week, 500 volunteers and roughly 1,750 competitors from 22 countries will converge in Sarasota for the event. It’s the first time the event is being held in the U.S.
“It’s a big deal for Sarasota to be internationally recognized,” Bowman says. “The more huge sporting events we have the more important it will be for groups in the community to support those events. That, in turn, will facilitate more events coming to town.”
The Pan-American Masters Championships began with the synchronized swimming events June 1 through June 3. The swimming events began June 5 and will extend through June 12. The championships will conclude with the open-water portion June 13, at Siesta Key Beach.
Sarasota won the bid two years ago, and, since then, the Sarasota YMCA and the Sharks have been gearing up for the event, including rebuilding locker rooms and adding additional blocks and bleachers.
“It’s a great group of people,” Bowman says of the Sharks. “We’ve got people from so many different walks of life … It’s a really nice group of people of all ages. There are no barriers.”
Today, Bowman swims at least five days a week and tries to do some type of physical activity the remaining two days. She also serves as the volunteer coordinator for the Sarasota Sharks swim team.
Bowman first began volunteering when her two boys, Graham and Shaw, were on the team. But after they both decided to stop swimming and join the Sarasota Crew, Bowman wasn’t quite sure of her next step.
“I felt like a fish out of water when they stopped swimming,” Bowman says. “I was like, ‘Oh, no, now what am I going to do?’”
She ultimately decided to continue volunteering on a part-time basis; she helps out with a lot of the larger swim meets, including the Florida Age Group Swimming Championships.
In addition to volunteering her time, Bowman also signed up for four Pan-Am events, but, depending on timing and other issues that arise, Bowman may have to settle for simply swimming a few warm-up laps.
“If I swim two (events) then that’s a win,” Bowman says. “I like competing, but it’s not the crème de la crème for me. If I don’t get to swim, I’ll still be here.”
Contact Jen Blanco at [email protected].