By SHARON KENNEDY WYNNE
Downtown St. Petersburg's waterfront will be hounded by athletes of all breeds this weekend as nimble pooches from around the country make their way to Spa Beach Park to compete in the Purina Pro Plan Incredible Dog Challenge Eastern Regional.
One of the competitors will be Tampa's own Jordan Connelly, 20, right, a college student who at age 10 was invited to this same competition in 2003. That dog, Buck, is now 13 and retired, but Connelly has a 4-year-old border collie named Blitz, also shown at right, who is ready for the big show, she says.
In a typical run, the dogs will face 20 obstacles that can include jumps, tunnels, tires, a gang plank, a hinged A-frame that a dog has to both climb up and descend, and "weave poles" that look like the slalom course poles skiers whisk around.
There will be about 50 dogs from around the East at the park Saturday and they will compete in high-flying disc routines, head-to-head weave pole racing, large- and small-dog agility courses, Jack Russell hurdle racing and the crowd favorite: dog diving, where dogs take a running leap off a 40-foot dock into a 19,000-gallon pool of water.
"It's kind of crazy to look back and realize that I was 8 years old and training a dog," said Connelly, a University of Florida biology major. As a kid she hounded her parents for a dog and was obsessed with the Animal Planet's agility shows, so she gave it a try.
Connelly and Buck debuted in St. Petersburg in 2003. The next year, Purina started a Junior Handler division — and the pair won.
Connelly went on to graduate from Tampa's Chamberlain High School and at 16 got Blitz and started training again. She says it takes a good two years to get a dog ready for the obstacle course competition.
Even local dogs can get into the act. Organizers are opening it up Friday for both the diving and freestyle flying disc competitions. Dogs who make the cut will be invited to Saturday's competition. Visit barknetwork.com for more information.
The winners Saturday will qualify for the finals in St. Louis in October, where the national competition will be televised on NBC.
You can bring your own dog to watch these athletes. They will have shade, fans and water bowls set out. Competition begins at 11 a.m. Saturday and goes till about 4 p.m.