When you go over the bridge to the main island at Nathan Benderson Park, you might notice a green placard sporting the name of FISA's czar of racecourses that reads "Svetla Otzetova Channel" alongside the waterway named for Svetla Otzetova. Otzetova is the Bulgarian Olympic gold medalist who now serves as the FISA Events Director - Technical, in which one of her primary responsibilities is to oversee site plans for the numerous championships run by FISA.
It was a surprise tribute to the vision and support that Otzetova brought to the project over the past eight years, and specifically to the channel that goes leads from the finish line of the racecourse around to the launch and return docks, a facet of the overall design that was one of Otzetova's signature initiatives.
"It was a surprise; I did not know about it until I arrived here for the championships," she said.
Otzetova was approached by local Sarasota rowing coach Dragos Alexandru in 2009 when both were attending the World Championships in Poznan, Poland, about a nascent concept for a rowing course at the current Sarasota site. They stayed in touch as the project took shape, and in 2011 Otzetova visited Florida to meet with Alexandru along with local officials and backers, which has been primarily the Benderson family and SANCA.
"They made a presentation of how they saw it, and it was already an advanced concept," she said. " They were following previous examples from other venues, and I asked if they wanted a top level venue, one of the best in the world. They said yes, so my first question was how much they wanted to change. They were very interested, so we started from scratch in a way." Otzetova and the Benderson and SANCA folks went to work on a site plan that would keep as much of the existing features as possible in order to keep costs down. One small but elegant element of the discussion was whether to keep the island that resides at the end of the launching area.
"We tried to keep as close to the existing features so it didn't cost as much," she said. "So there was some shuffling of earth to create a parallel line for the spectators in the finish area, and to take some from what is the channel now and put here and there.
"One of the discussions we had was whether to keep the island, because people were concerned it will be in the way of boats coming back, returning from the finish. But I thought this was a good feature. I liked to keep the island because it offers an element of nature."
The large island that contains the finish tower, future boathouse, and grandstands was another element under debate, and which Otzetova notes allows people to be along the course in front of the boathouse area. Otzetova notes that this decision was not an easy one, as it required a bridge to be built, which she said adds significant cost. But the resulting plan created possibilities for some of Otzetova's favorite features of the course, all benefiting the participating athletes.
"For me one of the big successes is the team meal tent with a view down the course and the sitting area outside," she said. "The team rest area also has a view towards the course. For me all these experiences are essential, as they benefit the athletes directly."
The finish line tower was an element on which Otzetova gave ground, her sentiment being that it was more space than necessary, but relented when the local community wanted enough space for the building to serve other functions as well. The expansive second floor in particular has hosted VIP functions all week.
"This is why we ended up with this finish tower, which seeing how it is used, is an excellent, excellent feature," she said. "It became the center point, the mark of the whole thing.
An eight rows into the channel on Saturday morning
"It was very good working with the local team," she said. "Often I have ideas or make proposals, and of course other people have other ideas, and it is not always easy."
Otzetova also noted small decisions about where to place the grandstands, the medals podium, and other elements that improved the overall experience for everyone.
"If you put the grandstands 10 meters forward, you could block everything in the finish line tower area, but then too far from the course is also not you block everything here but then too far behind is also no good. Now the experience is good for all the spectators, for the victory ceremonies, for television, for photographers; all these elements bring the overall feeling which people have here."
Otzetova recalled similar discussions during the buildout at past venues that did not go as well, with resulting features that reflected the conflicts, such as finish towers without a clear view to the starting line – the all-glass tower in Sarasota is a shared triumph of the participants in the process – and other issues.
"In this case it was really good, because we were inspiring each other, and this is the way it came out," she said.
Otzetova did not see the large sign marking the channel when she first arrived this year.
"I did not see it at first, but one of the officials mentioned it to me, then I saw it," she said with a laugh.
And among all these details and elements, the channel around the island that was one of Otzetova's signature initiatives now has her name.
A four heading into the channel after a practice row Saturday