SARASOTA -- Hundreds of spectators and fellow-rowers came out Saturday to watch as more than 1,000 rowers in 80 clubs from 28 states competed against one another.
The U.S. Rowing Masters National Championship, held this weekend at Nathan Benderson Park, comes just as Manatee and Sarasota counties are hoping to win the bid to host the 2017 World Rowing Championships. The masters championships are proving to be a boost to tourism, and just a hint of what the world championships could bring.
The crowds and curiosity drew Harriet Vanelburg, of Sarasota, to watch the competition.
"I think it's awfully exciting to see people are doing this," Vanelburg said. "I was just biking around the park."
Vanelburg bikes and runs, but has never rowed. That may change now.
"Not yet, once it's ready I'll be," Vanelburg said. "It's a beautiful sport."
The local physical therapist says she is always encouraging her patients to be active.
"I'm all about a body in motion," Vanelburg said. "I think it's great there is an 81-year-old woman competing."
Vanelburg hopes Sarasota and Manatee County win the bid for the World Rowing Championships.
Other spectators Saturday, such as Bob Shepard, shared her hopes.
"It's going to be a wonderful boost for the area and the state of Florida," Shepard said. "I certainly hope we win the world championships."
Shepard, of Bradenton, was a competitive rower for many years.
"I'm extremely happy to have this facility," Shepard said. "I never got a chance to row a world championship, but I knew a couple of guys that did."
The event featured many local rowers including Karen Wiegandt, a member of the Sarasota Crew club who learned to row years ago while living in New York.
"I've been rowing ever since," Wiegandt said. "It's a sport that I have taken with me everywhere."
Sixteen months ago Wiegandt made Sarasota her new home as rowing was taking off.
"I moved here for this park, that's why I picked Sarasota," Wiegandt said. "It was a very good choice."
Wiegandt was in high spirits early Saturday afternoon after winning a gold, a bronze and two silver medals. She is optimistic about what hosting the world championships could mean.
"It will increase the competition," Wiegandt said. "It will increase youth, master and collegiate rowing."
Randy Higel, who was coaching some of the Sarasota teams, was happy to see so many people out promoting the sport and venue. Higel said the best part about rowing was that anyone of any age can row.
"You can row until you die," Higel said.
Watching and waiting with anticipation was J.J. Bertram, of Orlando, whose husband was competing in the event.
"They've been working so hard," Bertram said.
Bertram was impressed with the facility at Nathan Benderson Park.
"It's really nice, I'm surprised," Bertram said. "I can tell it's going to grow into an even nicer facility."
While not watching the competition, Bertram said she enjoyed shopping at the nearby shop centers off of University Parkway.
"Hopefully we will make it out to the beach," Bertram said.
Jessica De Leon, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. Follow her on Twitter @JDeLeon1012.