UNIVERSITY PARK -- For Palmetto High School freshman Kelsea O'Reilly, rowing is like flying, and when you're rowing for competition, the pressure and the power out on the water is unlike anything else she's ever experienced.
O'Reilly and hundreds of Florida high school students from Manatee, Sarasota and nearby Hillsborough County, and as far away as Miami, Jacksonville, and Gainesville, all competed in a rowing regatta held over the weekend at Nathan Benderson Park.
The rowing races marked the sixth time that Sarasota County served as the official site for the high school state sweep championships hosted by the Florida Scholastic Rowing Assocation (FSRA). Over 42 clubs and 276 entrants showcased their sweep rowing skills, where a rower uses one oar held by both hands, paired in a sweep boat, with crews of two, four and eight, plus a navigator referred to as a coxswain.
The FSRA Sweep Championships were sponsored by Benderson Development Co., builders of the new Mall
at University Town Center near the park, the Sarasota Convention & Visitors Bureau and Sarasota County Parks and Recreation.
Over 180 volunteers, many from local Sarasota and Manatee rowing clubs and associations, and surrounding neighborhood community groups gave their time to make the event a success, doing everything from welcoming guests and participants, to manning the start and finish lines, handing out medals and awards, and even driving the referee boats during the races. Volunteer coordinator John Krotec, of Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Association, the nonprofit that operates Benderson Park, said volunteers come out because they like it, but also because they believe in the sport.
"When you give back to your community, you're the ambassador of your local neighborhood, and that's what we like to see out here," said Krotec, who called Benderson Park a "work in progress" that has a lot to offer.
Cliff Gartside, 69, a retiree who lives in North Port, spent his Saturday morning on the lake driving the referees around during the competitions. Gartside, who loves to boat and fish, says it's his second year volunteering for the sweeps, and he really enjoys it.
"You get to meet so many nice people, and best of all, it's healthy and safe for our kids out here."
Bob Pollard, parent of a student rower from Orlando who is competing in the regatta, began work at the recovery dock on Saturday and finished at the start line in the afternoon.
"This is the third year I've volunteered since my son has been competing, and I like helping out wherever I can," said Pollard, who praised the venue.
Parent Rebecca Reger of Sarasota called rowing on a high school level an incredible commitment but worth it.
"My son loves it, and it keeps him out of trouble, but it's hard work and long hours of training, and that's why they wear T-shirts with an 'I have no life, I row for nothing' saying," she said.
Rowers who competed from Palmetto High School were part of a larger organization called Manatee County Youth Rowing, comprised of Palmetto, Manatee, and Southeast high school students who train during the year at Fort Hamer Park. For Palmetto's Kelsea O'Reilly, a first-year rower, the balance of juggling school and rowing is something she's willing to commit to.
"There's something about being out on the water, in a boat, and then, there's the moment when it's all worth it."
The state sweep championships wrap up Sunday at Benderson Park, with competition beginning at 8 a.m. Admission is free.
Kathryn Moschella, Lakewood Ranch reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7010. Follow her on Twitter @MoschellaHerald.