With fireworks, finesse, and a flawless opening ceremony, Sarasota welcomed 70 countries to the 2017 World Rowing Championships. A crowd of over 10,000 strong enjoyed an amazing evening of entertainment, food and drinks, and a setting, that once inside, felt like one huge vacation as if we were all transported to Downtown Disney and the “Magic Kingdom” was now Benderson Park. A year of planning, building, and coordinating volunteers, athletes, vendors, and many more culminated into one of the largest events Sarasota has seen. And that was just opening night.
Sarasota, you dazzled the masses with a postcard-perfect evening. The rains stopped and people from around the globe were treated to a gorgeous rainbow sky, the kind that makes tourists book their flights and plan their vacations just to get a chance to experience one of our sunsets. With low humidity and a pleasant breeze, the folks who were spilling out onto tables near the food trucks and along the water could enjoy their libations in perfect comfort. Now, if the rain will only hold off as the competitions begin! Driving into the event, gridlock was expected, but with an abundance of police support and a fleet of buses and trams transporting folks to and fro, it was just like driving around UTC on a normal day, perhaps even a little smoother. Seeing all the flags representing the various countries, the white tents full of products area retailers would hope to sell, and that giant grandstand brought chills and excitement. It was so amazing to see this all come to fruition and with such impeccable execution.
The music and entertainment during the opening ceremony was electric and a wonderful representation of the area. Sarasota Ski-A-Rees, Jah Movement, Sarasota Cuban Ballet School, and Circus Arts Conservatory were just a few of the groups who had the crowds singing, dancing, and thoroughly engaged in the fun. A bevy of vendors offered games and activities for the kids, while showcasing products grown and produced locally. It was fun to walk around and listen to merchants explaining their wares and programs to people from other cultures. A large merchandise tent had an endless group of shoppers as people clamored to adorn themselves in rowing swag.
With all the amazing talent present, the beautiful setting along the water, and the crowds so happy to be a part of the celebration, perhaps the highlight was when the countries were announced. One by one, each country was called out by the masters of ceremony, Olivier Sedra and Hayley Wielgus. But when the host country, the United States of America, was announced the crowd erupted into a massive cheer of love and support. I believe the locals in attendance were also shouting praises for their hometown of Sarasota, for she had surely made them proud. The evening ended in a firework display that may rival this year’s 4th of July celebration. The night sky was lit up with dazzling colors and huge fireworks and as it turns out, “ooh” and “aah” are universal terms to describe one’s delight, even among so many different nations. As we slowly walked to our car, taking in the fireworks overhead, there was a sea of smiling faces. And, some tourists were stopping along the way to even photograph UTC, seemingly wanting to capture every moment and image they could, including Dillard’s!
It was a truly magical evening at Benderson Park, and the world has seen that Sarasota is a multi-cultural, progressive, and beautiful city, capable of being the host to 70 countries, 1200 athletes and an opening ceremony with thousands of people in attendance without skipping a beat. Kudos to Max Winitz, his staff, and the droves of volunteers and organizations who made the Opening Ceremony for the 2017 World Rowing Championships unforgettable. You have made Sarasota proud.
photos by Vicky Sullivan / Rock the Lens Photography