On Aug. 6, as the Big Ten Conference announced it was cancelling its rowing invitational next April 16-18 in Sarasota, Nathan Benderson Park released news of another big event it had secured.
The U.S. Dragon Boat Federation will host an expected 2,000 competitors in Sarasota to compete in its 2021 Club Crew National Championships July 9-11, 2021 at Nathan Benderson Park.
Despite uncertainties created by the COVID-19 pandemic, Federation officials predicted its Club Crew Nationals will, by far, be its biggest national championship event ever.
U.S. Dragon Boat Federation President Andrew Szymanski said his organization continues to plan for the future despite the pandemic.
"We obviously are monitoring the COVID-19 situation," Szymanski said. "But it is too early to project what that could look like."
The event, which will be held in conjunction with nonprofit Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates, which operates Nathan Benderson Park, is expected to generate more than 2,500 hotel room stays according to Shelby Connett, the director of sports for Visit Sarasota County.
In a hopefully post-pandemic environment, that would generate millions of dollars in economic impact for the area.
Connett said 18 months ago she combined with SANCA CEO/President Stephen Rodriguez (who now has shifted to chief operating officer) to reach out to the U.S. Dragon Boat Federation about bringing the event to Sarasota. Connett and Rodriguez thought it not only would provide a world class venue for the event, but it would also double as a preview event for the 2022 International Dragon Boat Federation Club Crew World Championships, which also will be hosted by Nathan Benderson Park.
Connett said a lot of the programming for the national championships will be similar to the world championships. It also provides a chance for dragon boat participants to get excited about the Sarasota area. The nationals is the sole qualifying event for U.S. athletes hoping to qualify for the 2022 world championships.
The U.S. Dragon Boat Federation's Barb Michaels, who also is on the International Dragon Boat Council, said her organization members always are seeking a destination that will attract a large number of competitors. She said Sarasota, which its beaches, shopping, restaurants and arts will draw a record number of participants.
"And Benderson Park also is the most technically accurate course in the U.S.," she said. "Everybody is anxious to get back on the water."
Rodriguez said while the pandemic has slowed tourism for the indefinite future, "everything will come back eventually."
"We wanted to give them a world class stage on which to perform," he said. "It's an exciting time for dragon boat racing and, of course, we have our own programs here. Our teams have been finding ways to work out virtually."
Rodriguez noted the 2020 world championships, scheduled for France, were cancelled due to the pandemic. Since the event is held every two years, Sarasota will be hosting the first such event in 2022 in four years.
"France had 7,000 people registered (to compete) before it was cancelled. "Internationally speaking, a lot of people will be eager to compete in Sarasota in 2022."
In 2014, Sarasota County hosted more than 2,500 paddlers for the International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission Dragon Boat Festival.