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Whatever makes your boat float

Nathan Benderson Park offers a variety of activities other than rowing.


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Angela Long presents a business card that has a photo of a Dragon Boat on the back.

Inevitably, Long is asked if she "rows."

"No," she answers emphatically. "We paddle."

Sarasota's Long is a member and founder of a Dragon Boat team that works out twice a week at Nathan Benderson Park. The team has about 35 members, and all are breast cancer survivors.

Twenty-two members of the team climb into the boat to compete, and all those who paddle face forward. That's opposed to rowers, who don't face the direction they are going.

Nicole Rissler is the chief operating officer for Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates (SANCA), which manages the park, and she wants the public to take a good look at where the park is going.

Rissler is leading an attempt to rebrand the park, which has gained worldwide attention as a top rowing facility. She wants the community to understand that it has plenty of entertainment options besides rowing.

Although competing in a Dragon Boat might be considered similar to rowing, it is different, and it's one example of a program that the park will offer to the public in 2016.

Nathan Benderson Park will offer organized activities starting this coming year and SANCA has hired Zach Hilferding to be the program manager. How many programs are added and to what extent depends on demand. Rissler said any program that is added must be self-sufficient in terms of generating enough fees to cover cost.

The demand, however, has prompted the park to consider investing in equipment, such as stand-up paddle boards and kayaks, and then charge a usage fee.  Bob Whitford, the operations manager for SANCA, said the park is taking a "build it and they will come" philosophy.

Whitford, a former rower at the University of California-Berkeley, calls Nathan Benderson Park the "Rose Bowl of rowing facilities." However, he said the park offers a multitude of opportunities that might be overlooked by the public.

Rissler and Whitford easily put together a list of 10 activities, other than rowing, that anyone could enjoy at the park.

1. DRAGON BOATS: Long laughed and said that after the public discovers Dragon Boats, Nathan Benderson Park could be known more as a Dragon Boat facility than a rowing facility. The sport has taken off all over the world even though it requires either 10 or 20 paddlers in a boat. Long started building a roster in October of 2013 and the team started competing the following year. Benderson donated two Dragon Boats and the breast cancer survivors were in business.

Nathan Benderson Park will offer a Dragon Boat program to the general public beginning in January. Although Long loves her new sport, she noted that those cancer survivors competing with her are, indeed, in a different boat. "We are such a family, a community," she said. "I look at it through these eyes."

That being said, she believes the public will love competing on a team with 22 people who all have the same goals. "We are a party when we all are together," she said. "At the same time, we all work hard out there."

Lakewood Ranch's Dana Bauer competes with Long's squad.

"No. 1, it is a great core workout, and great for the upper body," said Bauer, who is 72. "Age makes no difference and you get out of it however much you want to put into it. I love the camaraderie in that boat, the thrill of competing.

"It also gets you out to enjoy Nathan Benderson Park, which is right under our feet. I'm not sure people know about everything that is offered here. There is beautiful sand, and a great picnic area. Every time I get into this boat, it is a thrill." 

2. MOMMY & ME: Rissler said this program is one of "the top things on our list." Moms spend time together lakeside exercising and sharing stories. "It's a beautiful setting and we have plenty of space," Rissler said. "We don't need a gymnasium, just an instructor."

3. BIRD WATCHING: "The nature and ecotourism perspective has taken off," Rissler said. "We have a bird rookery, a nesting bird habitat. The park has two littoral shelves on the north lake where wading birds and turtles find refuge. "Water sloshes in and out," said Whitford. "It makes it perfect for snakes, birds, gators."

4. FISHING: The lake sports a variety of panfish. Gas motors are prohibited, but fishermen can get around the lake with an electric motor, which is not restricted in size.

5. DOG WALKING: Benderson Park is a dog-friendly park, as long as pets are kept on a 6-foot leash. Doggie bags are provided. Rissler noted that many people who like to exercise by walking or running with their dogs can't bring their pets to many public parks.

6. REMOTE CONTROL BOATING: Whitford said a regular group uses the North Lake to compete and sail their remote control boats, along with staging regattas. He said the north lake has banks all the way around so that if a remote control boat doesn't respond, the owner can eventually scoop it up along the shore.

7. ROLERBLADING: The park features a flat trail that is smooth with no potholes. The asphalt trail is 3.5 miles long and 15 feet wide.

8. STAND-UP PADDLE BOARDING: Whitford said the plan would be to purchase paddle boards and rent them to the public. He noted that paddle boarding started as a way to surf in Hawaii and since has morphed into its own sport. He said there is a demand for board rentals.

9. KAYAKING: Another sport that creates wellness, kayaking also allows the participant to take in nature.

10. YOGA: Down the road, the park might invest in an indoor facility, but for now, what better way to enjoy a group yoga workout than by doing it alongside a lake?