A late afternoon rain didn’t stop thousands from pouring into Nathan Benderson Park on Saturday as the opening ceremony for the 2017 World Rowing Championships brought together people from all corners of the world.
The park’s brick pathways were filled with visitors peeking into vendor’s white tents, combing through merchandise and chowing down on treats. The rows of vendors smelled of popcorn and lemons and by meandering through the lanes, one could overhear conversations in nearly a dozen languages.
But it’s no surprise. The championships are an event expected to draw 40,000 spectators over nine days. The first day drew thousands, more than enough to fill the grandstands and spill into the grassy areas nearby. Families shared food and drink around picnic tables and over strollers. Hundreds more stood along the newly built finish tower.
Darya Bushuev, her husband and two children came from their home in south Tampa to witness the opening ceremonies. She and her daughter skipped along the brick path, dancing to the music to meet the rest of the family behind the stands as music was being performed on the stage.
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Bushuev and her husband are both former professional athletes, a fencer and a water polo player respectively, and they were excited to watch their first rowing races.
“We’re here to support the athletes,” Bushuev said.
It’s a first chance for their 8-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son to observe rowing as well. They both nodded excitedly when asked if they were looking forward to watching the races.
Bushuev and her children all said the entire night was “pretty cool.”
The World Rowing Championships, held during non-Olympic years and organized by the World Rowing Federation, or FISA, is the highlight of the international rowing calendar. This year, 1,200 athletes from 70 countries will compete to be called champions as FISA marks its 125th anniversary.
The last time the event was held in the United States was 1994 at Eagle Creek Park in Indianapolis.
The grandstands Saturday night, located next to the finish tower, faced the water that will soon host hundreds of racers and a stage set up for the evening’s entertainment.
Once it started, action on the stage never stopped. From acrobats to singers and dancers, the evening widened the eyes of the crowd seated in the grandstands – which included some of the athletes in town to compete – time and time again.
Saturday night’s free opening ceremony saw performances from several local groups including Circus Sarasota, Jah Movement Reggae Band, Sarasota Cuban Ballet School, Sarasota Pops Orchestra, Sarasota Ski-A-Rees Water Ski Show Team, Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, and of course, was topped off with fireworks. Performers frequently had spectators on their feet dancing along.
Though lightning lit up the clouds forming behind the stands, it only added a light show to the background, never once creating a drop of rain or a clap of thunder.
Before performances delighted audiences, U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, Manatee County Commission Chairwoman Betsy Benac and several other officials welcomed visitors to the area.
“We’re so happy you all could make it here,” Benac said. “We depend on people coming here and sharing our community, and we’re so glad people came to see the Sarasota-Bradenton area.”
Buchanan, gesturing toward the water and tower, noted the beauty of the facility and touted that it will become one of the top rowing facilities in the world.
Competition is expected to officially begin at 10 a.m. Sunday.