MANATEE -- Palmetto High School boys and girls teams rowing teams will make their first appearance in a state championship contest Saturday when the Florida Scholastic Rowing Association regatta kicks off at Nathan Benderson Park.
“We are as ready as a team can be that has been on the water only since January,” said Trish Jackson, PHS rowing coach.
The Palmetto teams practiced Wednesday at Fort Hamer Park, starting with stretching exercises and running, before taking the long, slender boats into the Upper Manatee River.
To date, Palmetto has Manatee County’s only high school rowing team, and interest has been intense, said Jackson.
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About 50 students turned out for the first meeting to discuss establishing a rowing team, and participation has remained strong.
Students from Manatee and Southeast high schools have turned out to observe Palmetto practice sessions, and one Lakewood Ranch High student has announced his intent to transfer to Palmetto to participate in rowing.
The state championship regatta at Benderson Park, located just south of the Manatee-Sarasota county line near Interstate 75, is expected to attract thousands of athletes and spectators.
“In order to compete in this race, we have to row a little above our skill level, but our kids are so dedicated and work so hard that I think they’ll do well,” Jackson said.
The team is fortunate to have the state championships in its own backyard, she said.
“It’s an eye-opener for a lot of the underclassmen, they can see what they have to train up to compete again next year,” said Jackson.
Palmetto has three boats, which are not enough for all the students who turned out for rowing.
“We need two more,” said strength training coach Tashia Waiters.
Anthony Catlett, one of Palmetto’s captains who previously played football, said he wants to use his one year of experience to try out for the University of Central Florida rowing team.
Carley Colding, one of the girls rowing captains, said she tried out for the team because she thought it would be a lot of fun, and the sport has lived up to her expectations.
The free rowing event begins at 7:30 a.m. Saturday with a ceremonial ground-breaking with Manatee and Sarasota county officials. The event is for a roadway project that will allow extension of the 1,500-meter lake course to 2,000 meters.
“This is the first major step in the Cattleman Road project and to get to that world class objective of hosting the world rowing championship in 2017, which will attract over 70 countries,” said Paul Blackketter, project manager for Benderson Development Co. LLC, which is partnering with the two counties to develop rowing facilities.
Races start at 8 a.m. Saturday and again Sunday.
“It’ll be a fun and exciting day with a lot of different things going on,” he said.
This year marks the largest championship event for the rowing association, said its president, Dan Newman.
He estimated 1,700 athletes would take part and another 4,000 or 5,000 spectators would show up, while Blackketter on Wednesday was predicting as many as 10,000 athletes and spectators would attend over a three-day period.
“FSRA and me, personally, have been working with Benderson since the idea started about four years ago,” said Newman. “We were the first competition of any size to be held at this facility,” he added.
“The Benderson folks and the community put on a first-class event,” Newman said. “It’s really been just tremendous.”
-- James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, contributed to this report.