Since Nathan Benderson Park completed its finish tower and hosted the World Rowing Championships in 2017, it has established itself as one of the premiere rowing venues in the U.S. and across the globe.
In turn, major rowing organizations, such as USRowing, have scheduled events at the park, giving the local rowing community a chance to see the best athletes in the sport. In the run-up to the 2024 Paris Olympics, USRowing will make Benderson Park the home of three camps and trials as the organization builds its Olympic roster. The first of those events, a Winter Speed Order camp, will come to the park Feb. 15-18.
Preparing for these events has been a long process for Nathan Benderson Park, one that began in September 2022 when Hurricane Ian wreaked havoc on its facilities.
Nathan Benderson Park Conservancy COO Bruce Patneaude said the park had to undergo a full overhaul following the storm, meaning new docks and new lane lines, plus a new wave attenuator, which runs approximately a mile long and keeps the park's lake waters calm during races. That's one of the keys to the park's popularity with rowers. The park also had to stabilize its southern shoreline and its starting area. The cost of all the repairs came to more than $3 million.
The damage was especially bad because the storm's strong winds came from the south, the direction in which the park has less natural protection, Patneaude said. With 2023's Hurricane Idalia, the winds blew the opposite direction, limiting the damage done to the park. But the park took no chances regardless. Patneaude said the park removed its newly replaced docks and other key pieces of equipment from the water prior to the storm, having learned its lesson from Ian.
Those vying for Olympic berths at the upcoming events will have access to a new feature of the park. Patneaude said the park has put up a new tent on its Regatta Island where rowers can store their boats and work on their out-of-water training. It will also act as a nutrition space, Patneaude said, so rowers can refuel without going into the island's public spaces.
"These are exclusive athletes," Patneaude said. "They need to be treated above and beyond. They're special."
The first of USRowing's events at Benderson Park, the Winter Speed Order event, is all about timing. The organization will send different groups of rowers down the park's 2K course to test their speed.
Following the Winter Speed Order event, USRowing will hold its Olympic Selection Camp from March 4 to April 1. The organization's Olympic Team Trials and Paralympic Team Trials begin April 2 and run through April 7. Both of these events will help determine which athletes get seats in Olympic-qualifying boats; some boats have already qualified, while others still must battle for a spot with whoever the coaches believe will give them the best shot.
Though exact plans are still being finalized, Patneaude said there will be no charge for fans to come watch these events — except for perhaps a parking fee — and there will be vendors on-site selling food, drinks and other items. Patneaude said he would like to get some University Town Center businesses involved as well, to make things feel like a truly communal event.
Casey Galvanek, the president of and a coach with Sarasota Crew, is one of the coaches working with the Olympic-hopeful athletes at these events, particularly the men's sweep athletes. Alongside helping these athletes train and improve their skills, he will also have input in which athletes get which seats in a given boat. Galvanek said he's thrilled for the opportunity and is dedicated to making sure the selection processes are done fairly and executed well. It's a pressure-filled position, Galvanek said, but he's ready for it.
Galvanek said that while a rower's individual speed is part of what goes into the process, it is not the only factor. In an 8+ boat, for instance, coaches want to fill those seats with rowers who have similar applications of power. A rower whose power is out of sync with the rest of the boat will make the boat worse than a slightly slower rower whose strokes sync better. At the same time, Galvanek said, coaches must consider the consequences of a switch in lineup. Replacing one rower to make a boat faster may make another boat worse. Is that trade-off worth it? It is a complicated process of thought, Galvanek said.
In the meantime, Galvanek is helping the prospective athletes give these races their best. Galvanek was complimentary of the job Benderson Park has done accommodating the athletes' needs.
"(The new workout tent) is fantastic," Galvanek said. "It makes everything much more usable. In the rain (on Feb. 5), it was terrific. We got to work on boats and the athletes had a clean space to train and stretch. It's a game-changer."
The public will soon be able to the fruits of these elite athletes' work.
Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.