With an American flag draped around her back and waist, Mary Jones received the biggest pop from the grandstands.
Jones didn’t win her race in Friday’s women’s lightweight single sculls at the 2017 World Rowing Championships at Nathan Benderson Park. But that didn’t matter to Jones, who placed third to earn a podium finish and see the United States flag raised in front of a decisively pro-American fan base.
“I knew it would be really special to be here in Sarasota with so many supporters,” Jones said. “... And it was even better than I thought.”
Jones was in one of 10 races to award medals in Friday’s kickoff to championship weekend, which concludes Sunday with the closing ceremony that wraps up an action-packed eight days on the waters at Benderson Park.
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The Huntsville, Ala., native was the only American to medal Friday, doing so in front of family and friends who made the trip from Alabama.
“It means a lot to have them here to cheer me on,” Jones said.
Jones relocated to Boston a couple years ago and trains with Gevvie Stone, who captured the silver medal in the women’s single sculls at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
Having Stone push her in training, coupled with learning from each race she participated in this year, Jones came into this week’s 2017 World Rowing Championships with a concrete plan.
“I was really working on my race rhythm and having a long, powerful stroke,” Jones said. “And being comfortable in the middle of the race and pushing the pace.”
And on Friday, she executed en route to a bronze-medal performance — she clocked in at 7:42.45, a few seconds behind South Africa’s Kirsten McCann, who captured gold.
But when the athletes took the podium, it was Jones who received a huge applause.
That energy from the crowd is something that also boosts Meghan O’Leary and Ellen Tomek. The pair won their semifinal race in the women’s double sculls with a time of 6:55.29.
“Coming into that last 250 (meters) and hearing all of the stands, ‘U-S-A,’ ” O’Leary said. “It can’t get better than that.”
Entering Friday’s semifinal, O’Leary and Tomek were well aware of how fast — and close — the race might be.
“We just wanted to go out there and have our best race,” Tomek said. “Stay relaxed, kind of execute the race that we think that will put us in a good position (in the) finals.”
The final is Sunday.
While there’s hope for more American medals this weekend, Jones was the first to grab one for Team USA.
A key to her performance, in addition to executing her race plan, was the training sessions. Specifically, training with a rower such as Stone.
“I don’t feel out of my element lining up against the women that were in the final (Friday),” Jones said. “It’s so fast every day in practice.”