For the last week, fans have been soaking up the sun and watching competition among the best rowers in the world at Nathan Benderson Park, but not everyone gets to do it from the VIP section in the brand new finish tower.
The tower, which was unveiled Aug. 8, cost $6 million to construct and was funded by private donations. The second floor holds VIP viewing areas; the third is for the timing system; the fourth floor is for broadcasting; the FISA offices are on the fifth floor; and the roof is for the VIPs of the VIPs. The tower can also be utilized as an events center when not used for regatta operations.
Its location is perfect for overlooking the finish line for races, something those who paid the extra ticket cost to stand there have taken notice of.
Emily Freed stood inside the glass doors of the second floor VIP viewing area of the tower Saturday morning with her parents, excitedly pointing out the race course.
Around her, dozens of fans mingled with FISA council members over iced coffee, beer and wine. A table with a spread of food welcomed guests inside the air-conditioned tower with glass windows that gave a straight-on view of the finish line. Standing-height tables gave guests a place to rest their drinks and food while others chose to sit on couches and watch the competition unfold from the comfort of their seats. Freed, however, chose to stand and look out the window at the final stretch of the course.
Freed, 14, has been rowing for three years and is on the novice team with the Sarasota Scullers. She attends Riverview High School. Riverview does not have a school rowing team, so she joined the club to get involved in the sport.
“It’s really getting the Florida experience with being on the water,” Freed said.
Saturday morning was Freed’s third day at the rowing championships — after being a part of the opening ceremonies — but her first in the VIP section of the tower. She was impressed by the visibility and the electricity of the crowd from her new perspective.
“It’s so cool — it’s almost like adrenaline. I feel like I’m in the race almost,” Freed said.
She was awestruck by the talent and dedication of the athletes rowing below her, and she grew wide-eyed as she talked about watching them up-close and personal on a course she herself has rowed before.
“It’s so well put together. It’s a perfect position to be at the end of the race,” Freed said.
Being at the races and seeing them from the tower has given her parents, Dan and Amy Freed, a new appreciation for the sport.
“I don’t know much about rowing, but through the eyes of a 14-year-old, it’s opened my whole perspective to how amazing this sport is,” Dan Freed said.
And with such a high level of competition so close to home, the family was excited to bring their daughter to the championships.
“The whole thing is people from traveled from all over the world, and it’s 10 minutes from our house,” Dan said.
Members of the Freed family weren’t the only ones in the VIP seating to take advantage of the U.S. hosting the championships.
Win Piper of Hanover, N.H., was thrilled that the championships came to Florida so he could come down to see some old friends. On the second floor balcony of the tower, he cheered emphatically, leaning over the railing with binoculars to watch the U.S. National Team compete.
He wasn’t alone, there were nearly 100 other fans cheering and waving along the railing as they waited for the rowers to pass the finish line. Tables with umbrellas provided some shade for those closer to the grandstands.
Just behind Piper, couches and umbrellas and coffee tables provided shaded and more comfortable outdoor seating for fans of all ages.
Piper was against the railing cheering for a few athletes in particular. Back in his Hanover home, he had previously hosted members of the women’s national rowing team when they came to his hometown to train in the summer. Some of those athletes he’s hosted were competing Saturday, and he and his wife were there to cheer them on.
The Pipers said they were impressed with their view from the tower. He compared his rail spot at the tower to courtside seats at a basketball game.
“Of the other big events we’ve been to, this is a first-class venue,” Piper said. “We watched the world’s best athletes cross the finish line right under our noses.”
He said his favorite part, however, was being able to see the expressions of the rowers as they finished the races and received their medals.