PARRISH -- The spirit of legendary Harvard rowing coach Harry Parker was quite palpable Thursday at Fort Hamer Park.
Memories of the craggy-faced, inspirational leader who died last June come easily for Harvard University's coaches and athletes. They have been training at the Manatee County rowing training facility and at Nathan Benderson Park since Jan. 14, a wintertime tradition for the Ivy League college in recent years.
"It was an honor and a privilege to work with him and to learn from him," said Liz O'Leary, head coach of the Harvard-Radcliffe heavyweight crew. "We were together a lot of years."
Parker served 50 years as head coach at Harvard. O'Leary is now in her 28th year of coaching at Harvard.
This year, the Harvard contingent making the annual winter training trek to Manatee-Sarasota numbers 190. It took better than a hour Thursday for all of the men's and women's crews to exit the water, remove and wash their boats, and store them in the boat house after practice.
"Women's rowing in the United States is really exciting and deeply competitive," O'Leary said.
Harvard coaches and students are certainly grateful to have a winter training facility.
"It's been a great trip. We have gotten in a lot of training," said Pat Lapage, an assistant men's coach.
The Manatee River always offers "good water," Lapage said, meaning there is no layer of ice, like back in Cambridge, Mass.
He, too, was reflective when talking about Parker.
"His presence is still felt pretty heavily," Lapage said.
When Paul Blackketter explains how Harry Parker came to be associated with Fort Hamer Park, which opened in tandem with the sprint course at Nathan Benderson Park a few miles away, the word "audacity" comes to mind.
"It started with the design of the rowing center. We reached out to the top rowing folks in the United States," said Blackketter, now chief operating officer of the Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Association.
Surprisingly, Parker accepted an invitation to visit Manatee-Sarasota in 2009 and review plans being made for the Benderson Park rowing facility.
"We had a bad freeze and were blown away that he would come down and give us his time," Blackketter said. "We asked him if this was the right thing to do, and he told us this could be the best course in the United States."
In essence, Parker became part of the design team, offering valuable guidance on how to proceed.
Parker then asked if, in addition to the proposed sprint course at Benderson Park, there was another stretch of water suitable for a 2,000-meter training course.
Blackketter and Bruce Ness took Parker on a boat trip from near Carlton Arms apartments to Fort Hamer, looking at possible training locations.
"This is where I grew up, and I was hoping and praying that he liked what he saw," Blackketter said.
When they arrived at Fort Hamer Park, then a dilapidated county park, Parker jumped out of the boat and said: "This is it. This is the spot!"
Rowing boosters went to the Manatee County Commission and got buy-in for establishing a rowing training facility at Fort Hamer.
"Having both places close by is huge. This is his legacy. His fingerprints are all over the place," Blackketter said.
Sarah Kupiec, an event coordinator for Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Association, said many athletes who travel to Manatee-Sarasota in the winter now see this as their home course.
In addition to the new business collegiate rowing brings to the area, Blackketter hopes some of the bright, young athletes who train here will be inspired to consider Manatee-Sarasota for their residences and careers.
Other collegiate rowing teams training this winter in Manatee-Sarasota include Northeast University, Georgetown, Loyola University, The University at Buffalo, Canisius College in New York and more.
"We are having a terrific trip. This is a beautiful facility, perfect for getting in a lot of hard work," O'Leary said.
Asked about the world rowing championships planned for Manatee-Sarasota in 2017, O'Leary said she plans to attend.
"It would be exciting for me if some of our athletes were competing," she said.
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter @jajones1.