SARASOTA -- More than 6,000 athletes, spectators and officials are expected to descend upon Sarasota's Nathan Benderson Park this week as the area hosts its first national rowing championship event.
Practices for the USRowing Masters National Championships are slated to begin Wednesday, with competitive racing to continue Thursday through Sunday.
"We expect over 1,000 athletes and visitors a day from around the U.S.; we anticipate probably 6,000 overall," said Bob Whitford, operational manager at Benderson Park, 290 N. Cattleman Road.
"It's the first time we've hosted the masters, and the first national rowing championship we've hosted here," he added.
Athletes will range in age from 21 into their 90s, say Whitford, who is a rower as well as a former coach at California State University at Sacramento.
"It is a really big deal, USRowing masters, because it is comprised of former Olympians to people who just learned to row," said Whitford. "Everybody's having fun, it's a fun event, and that's what it's all about."
The 21-year-olds can race against those in their 90s because the younger rowers have a time handicap.
The 600-acre park is still under construction as infrastructure for world-class competitive rowing is built in an effort to host the 2017 World Rowing Championship.
A public-private partnership -- including Manatee and Sarasota counties, a private foundation, and the Benderson Development Co. -- has submitted a formal bid to host the event in fall 2017.
On Sept. 2, the International Federation of Rowing Associations, representing 136 countries, is expected to choose a site for the world
championship when it meets in Chungju, S. Korea.
The masters championships will offer a snapshot of the possibilities of such events at the park, located near Interstate 75 and University Parkway.
As of late Friday, the masters event had attracted 1,006 entries from 107 clubs across 28 states, said Casey McKenna-Monroe, a Sarasota County Rowing Club rower and regatta chair.
It will feature about 200 races altogether, or about 50 events a day.
"We've all been looking forward to this for a year," she said. "We've been training for a year."
A former teacher at Manatee's Haile Middle School, McKenna-Monroe, 27, is writing a book and freelance writing.
She will be competing in four events this week.
"I learned to row as an adult, I did row one semester when I studied abroad," she said. "It's just something I've always wanted to do when I was in high school -- but rowing didn't start in my high school until a year after I left."
This will be her first time competing in the national championships.
"I have watched my diet, now I'm down 15 pounds from last year, I'm doing healthy eating, watching calories, watching protein intake, drinking lots of water, tons of water," she explained.
She works out six days a week, sometimes at 5:45 a.m., and uses a rowing machine and weight-lifting to build strength.
Tamara Currey, 51, of Sarasota, plans to work as a volunteer during this week's events.
Currey is affiliated with the Sarasota Masters Rowing Club, based at Blackburn Point Park in Osprey.
Blackburn and Benderson parks, along with Manatee County's Fort Hamer Park, comprise three venues in the two-county area that have been developed to accommodate competitive rowing.
Currey has been rowing six years, but recently had shoulder surgery and will not be competing, she said.
"I'm volunteering and helping a lot of my friends," she explained. "It's a very exciting time, and there's so much excitement with the regatta and all the teams that are coming.
"We're so fortunate Sarasota is able to do this -- and, hopefully, we'll get the world championship bid for 2017."
Admission to the event is $5 per person; $5 parking; bicyclists only pay admission. For more information about this week's event, go to the Internet site at www.regattacentral.com.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.