Number of rowing teams coming to Manatee-Sarasota in 2015 much larger than in 2014

UNIVERSITY PARK -- When the Columbia University rowing program began planning for its annual January training trip to Florida, the school was looking to improve a few aspects of the trip, said Scott Alwin, director of rowing and heavyweight men's rowing head coach said.

Proximity of hotels and restaurants to the training venue was one of the areas on the top of the list, Alwin said. For the past 20 years, the school has been training in Melbourne.

With the number of dining options and activities along University Parkway near Nathan Benderson Park, Alwin said the school is happy with the decision to bring 101 athletes -- heavyweight men's rowing team, lightweight men's rowing team and women's rowing team -- and 10 staff members to Benderson Park to train earlier this month.

"Nathan Benderson Park and Sarasota did a great job. ... It certainly provided us with the improvements of what we were looking for from our previous location," Alwin said.

For many teams, the winter months are used to prepare and train for the spring rowing season, which is the primary season for college rowing.

Paul Blackketter, president of Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates, the nonprofit that runs Benderson Park, is capitalizing on that by actively recruiting college teams to come to Sarasota/Bradenton to train at one of three area courses: Benderson Park, Fort Hamer and Bay Preserve at Osprey.

So far in 2015, Blackketter said he has seen an increase in the number of teams coming to train in Bradenton and Sarasota. Some teams that have trained here so far in 2015 include Seattle Rowing Club, Yale University, University of Dayton women's team, Potomac Boat Club and Harvard University.

"We are very happy with it," Blackketter said. "It is just an incredible experience for these colleges who come down."

Many colleges use spring break as a last chance to train before the beginning of the spring rowing season.

In March, Georgetown University men and women's rowing teams will come to Benderson Park and Fort Hamer, respectively, to get into the mindset of the spring racing season free from any distractions, said Luke Agnini, Georgetown University men's rowing team head coach.

"It is a good way to have a week of really concentrated training before we get started with the spring season," he said. "For me, I think it is going to be helpful for our guys to see the pace."

While the plethora of local hotels and restaurants also appealed to Agnini when the school was considering whether to train at Benderson Park, he added that Benderson Park's bayou lines also were important.

"I do find good value in having the bayou line so that's a good value to me," Agnini said. Because Benderson Park could be where the men's rowing national championships are held, Agnini said he "would like to get some good familiarity with the park."

Blackketter said SANCA recruits teams to train at both venues because Fort Hamer is intended for more stamina training, while Benderson Park allows teams to train on the course for sprint racing. SANCA is looking for other venues to be able to expand the training program, he added.

"We tell the coach this is what we have and this is what is available and we let them pick," Blackketter said. "We market all our venues to let them fill up. The dates availability is the deciding factor. ... Each venue has a capacity, and we can never exceed that capacit. Then the quality of rowing will go down, and we don't want that to diminish."

While it is too early to say definitely whether Columbia University will return to Sarasota in the future, Alwin said he sees that as a strong likelihood.

During the trip, everybody that the team interacted with, including SANCA staff and hotel staff, was friendly and welcoming, Alwin said.

"In terms of the social environment and interacting with people around us, we had a favorable stay which would contribute positively to returning," he said. "It is exciting to see a community that has an interest in rowing because it is sort of an obscure sport."

Claire Aronson, University Parkway/Sarasota reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024 or at Follow her on Twitter@Claire_Aronson.

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