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The New Zealand Women's Four team works out at Nathan Benderson Park in preparation for the 2017 World Rowing Championships.
East County Wednesday, Sep. 20, 2017 3 years ago

Side of Ranch

Take advantage of some world championship passion.
by: Jay Heater Managing Editor

United States Senior National Team member Mary Jones did a nice balancing act as she carried her boat Sept. 15 toward a dock at Sarasota’s Nathan Benderson Park.

An elite level rower, she was alone, and it was time to train for the 2017 World Rowing Championships, which begins Sept. 23 with the Opening Ceremony at the park and runs through Oct. 1.

No trainer. No coach. No teammates. No sports psychologist.

No one to help carry her boat and oars.

If Jones has an entourage, they weren’t early risers.

For me, that’s the charm, and the draw, of watching amateur sports. Individuals work for years in obscurity because, well, they love their sport, the competition, and the quest to be the best.

No promise of a payoff, except for a gold medal.

It’s been a year since the excitement of our area hosting a World Championships event began to crescendo. Much of that excitement had to do with dollar signs, not the athletes, but for local businesses. Hotels in Sarasota and Manatee counties are full or near-full, and restaurants near Nathan Benderson Park are likely to be packed.

If you aren’t a business owner, though, it’s time to take advantage of the event as well. Be a fan for a day.

Go watch an athlete like Jones, who is a long shot in the lightweight single sculls event. Just getting to a world championship is a major accomplishment for Jones, who is 31.

She still dreams of being an Olympian, though, and she has put the rest of her life on hold while she pursues that goal. Her degree from the University of Tennessee is in physics, but instead, she rows. To me, that’s interesting.

Nobody is being kidded here. While Jones wasn’t surrounded by “her people” at the dock, she does have solid backing to help her be a full-time rower. Amateur sports at the elite level is more a quasi-professional proposition than ever before as the United States has built impressive support systems for its Olympic-caliber athletes.

Even so, Jones, a lightweight single sculls champion at the Pan Am Games in 2015, isn’t about to be on a Wheaties box for making the finals of a World Championships event. She won’t be invited to “The Tonight Show.” She won’t get a seven-figure payday even if she wins. Or a six, or a five, or a four.

Neither will Ellen Tomek, whose degree from the University of Michigan in 2006 was in economics. Tomek is 33 and she’s not studying gross national product. Instead, she has been to two Olympic Games. She says rowing is her full-time job and has been for 15 years.

While Tomek, who competes in double sculls, will have plenty of coaching opportunities after this, her final year of competition, she certainly hasn’t struck it rich. She rows because she loves the competition. She loves the sport.

This edition of the East County Observer includes a special section that features the 2017 World Rowing Championships. Among the stories is a look at Tomek’s training schedule. It’s a picture of dedication and sacrifice. It’s a story that makes me want to watch.

You might, too, even though you won’t know the athletes. Have you heard of Lauren Schmetterling? She is the LeBron James of U.S. rowing. She was the driving force behind the United States’ 2016 Olympic gold medal performance in Rio in the Women’s Eights.

While the United States will be a long shot for gold in most of the classes contested at Benderson Park, the U.S. Women’s Eight team is like the New York Yankees of the sport. The team has won every World Championship or Olympic event since 2006.

The faces, though, might as well be hidden in helmets. Do you know me?

No, we don’t.

This, however, is your chance to become a little more familiar with the athletes and to share their passion.

This is a chance to show them — those athletes who work in obscurity — they aren’t alone.


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