In Zephyrhills, It was a sports enthusiasts dream — for children and adults alike.
There were scaled down or mini versions of tennis, basketball, football, soccer, floor hockey, golf, virtual skydiving, even a fitness obstacle course — all offered for free, all day long.
About 1,500 people passed through the first annual Pasco Sports Fair, held Feb. 16 at Skydive City in Zephyrhills.
The event was the brainchild of Pascal Collard, CEO of the new Sarah Vande Berg Tennis & Wellness Center, in partnership with Skydive City owners Joannie Murphy and Susan Stark.
The event was sponsored in part by Pasco County Commissioner Ron Oakley and Randy Blankenship of B.R.W. Contracting Inc.
Collard saw multiple benefits to the newfound event.
First, Collard, an avid skydiver himself, saw it as a way to introduce more of the Pasco County community to the extreme sport, which entails jumping from an aircraft with a parachute from an altitude of several thousand feet.
“It’s unique in the world,” Collard said, “and some people in Zephyrhills and Wesley Chapel don’t even know it exists.”
Stark agreed, adding the fair helps “demystify” skydiving to locals, a sport which draws participants from all over the world to the small town.
Said Stark, “Even if they don’t come and skydive, they come and they watch, and this is just a great source a fun for people to do here on the way eastern side of Pasco.”
She added of the fair: “It’s probably going to attract more people who are interested in seeing skydiving, than necessarily doing it, but we’ll also probably have some additional people also doing the skydiving.”
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Collard wanted an event that gave local youth the chance to try different sports and meet former professional athletes at no cost — with the help of volunteers and vendors, such as Experience Florida’s Sports Coast, AdventHealth Center Ice, Silverado Golf & Country Club and many others.
Some former professional athletes who met with families and oversaw the sporting activities included former English Premier League forward Gary Blissett, who played for Wimbledon FC in the mid-1990s; former NFL defensive end Mel Williams, who played for the New Orleans Saints, San Francisco 49ers, Miami Dolphins and Washington Redskins in the mid-2000s; and, former Tampa Bay Rowdies head coach and soccer player Stuart Campbell.
Blissett, who was in charge of a soccer drill station, described the day’s activities as “more fun than teaching,” simply giving curious youth a chance to try new sports, and parents the information on available leagues and sports organizations around town.
“If people enjoy what they’re doing at their stations, and it’s something they’ve never done before, they now have access to it, they know where to go to get it,” said Blissett, the coaching director of the Spirit of Zephyrhills Florida Soccer Club youth recreational league.
By bringing those types of known sports figures along, Collard believes it offers hope to area youth that have athletic dreams and aspirations.
He put it like this: “If kids see they have access to guys like Mel Williams, they say, ‘Oh, this is real,’ because otherwise they didn’t believe it’s going to happen.”
Meanwhile, Collard, an international tennis instructor who’s trained some of the world’s top-ranked pros, believes organizing and creating more affordable athletics opportunities for youth can change the fabric of a community like Zephyrhills.
Said Collard, “I believe all the kids in Zephyrhills need sports — it keeps them away from trouble. That’s the reality. But, nobody does enough.”
Families to the first-ever event appreciated the chance to bring their children to freely try out a variety of sports. Set up like a school field day, kids that tried all eight sports stations received a goody bag and were entered for a gift prize drawing.
Zephyrhills resident Sarah Steen brought along her 4-year-old daughter, Ruth, to gauge her interest on the various sports for when she gets a little older.
“It’s pretty cool, it’s fun,” Steen said of the sports fair. “I like how she’s learning about the different sports before I go and pay the fees, and buy the helmets and everything, so we get to see if she likes it before I have to pay for everything.”
Steen added, “I want to keep her active and healthy, so this kind of thing is good because it gets the kids, it shows them the different kinds of sports they can do.”
Steen acknowledged in Zephyrhills “there’s not as many options” for youth athletic activities, whether it be lack of qualified volunteer coaches or enough interested kids who can afford to play.
She asserted, “When I was a kid, it seemed like everybody played baseball or softball. And now, it seems like they have to beg people to be a coach.”
Steen’s 15-year old son, David Castro, agreed.
“There’s not enough (recreational) leagues out here,” said Castro, a member of the Zephyrhills High School tennis and soccer teams.
Because of that, Castro noted many of his friends and fellow teens “don’t have a choice” but to spend their free time on cellphones, playing video games and so on.
So, he liked how the event offered kids something to do outdoors for free, with hopes of maybe sparking or reinvigorating athletics pursuits in others.
“I think it’s good,” he said of the sports fair, “because it’s going to get kids like wanting to go (play sports). That’s kind of the main issue around here, is there’s not enough kids interested, so you don’t really have a lot of options.”
For Ontario, Canada’s Michelle Galley Salgueiro, the sports fair gave something for her to do with her 8-year-old son, Liam, as they spent the week visiting her parents, Zephyrhills snowbirds.
The event was “perfect,” for her son, she said, “because I’m trying to get him used to more sports.”
One of those included the football station, where Liam joined in on non-contact drills consisting of footwork, sprints, and catching and handling balls.
“We will never play football, we’re not a football family,” his mother said, “but it’ll give him a chance today to try it.”
When informed the sports fair plans to be an annual event, the out-of-towner said, “We would definitely come around for this.”
Published February 26, 2020