BRADENTON -- Years ago, Brad Shively and Scott Whitbeck were members of the same college swim team in Michigan. They remembered visiting Bradenton for winter practice.
Now the former college classmates are head coaches at different schools and continue the tradition of going south to practice at the G.T. Bray Aquatic Center.
Shively, now coach of the Washington University swim team in Saint Louis, and Whitbeck, coach of the swim team from State University of New York at New Paltz, arrived in Bradenton with their teams this week. Joining them is the Limestone College swim team from Gaffney, S.C., for a week and a half of practice.
The teams practice at G.T. Bray and stay on Anna Maria Island, enjoying the Florida surf and weather, while contributing to the Bradenton economy and cultivating a new generation of visitors.
"We put $3,761 on our credit card at Winn-Dixie last night," said Whitbeck as an example of what it costs to bring 50 student-athletes to Florida.
It's Whitbeck's fifth year bringing his SUNY-New Paltz team to Bradenton.
"It's not as busy or as crowded here as it would be in Fort Lauderdale or Miami," Whitbeck said. "One of my student's parents came here, too, as a family vacation."
Senior Colleen Stewart, an All-American breaststroker from SUNY-New Paltz, said the team looks forward to coming to Bradenton annually.
"The weather is better than in New York. Hopefully my car won't be snowed under when we go home," Stewart said.
Washington University draws students from around the country with its academic programs, which are on par with Ivy League schools and Stanford University, Shively said.
Only two of 49 Washington University students are from Missouri, he said.
Washington University swimmers have been coming to Bradenton in the winter for about 12 years.
"I like the atmosphere. The pace is nice here, and so are the people and the beach," Shivley says of why he keeps returning.
Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, is a big fan of sports business.
"What it does is bring athletes and their families to our area and exposes them to our product. At some point they will want to return," Falcione said.
Ninety-four percent of first-time visitors to the Bradenton area eventually return, he said.
"They are falling in love with the community here," Falcione said.
The higher income demographic of athletes from sports such as swimming and rowing doesn't hurt either, he said.
Matt Porter, director of the aquatics center, said he is happy to see additional activity at G.T. Bray park.
"It's great to see them utilizing the pool, and that they know we are here," Porter said.
James A. Jones Jr., Herald reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter @jajones1.