Just Doing It
UM takes a giant leap from the Schreiber Gym to a new recreation center.
by Courtney Lowery
It’s a dreary March day in Missoula. Outside, rain ... or is it snow ...? is joining an inch of snow on the ground. But sweat is dripping off the chin of the girl next to me.
Being on a treadmill today isn’t so bad, especially when I can watch the Clark Fork River bend beneath the Higgins Avenue bridge and see the valley’s mountains stretching out to frame a background. Normally, treadmills make me feel like a test rat going around and around on a wheel. But on a day like this, in a facility like UM’s new Fitness and Recreation Center, a treadmill sure beats frostbite.
Even the stair-stepper seems easier. It could be the state-of-the-art machine (like all the other equipment in the building), and it could be the view and the light coming in the panoramic windows, but I think it may be the $81 out of my pocket that is making me feel a bit lighter. Taking a gander around the building—the architecture a pleasing contrast of warm stone floors and cool steel structure, the high-tech equipment, a comfy little juice bar, sauna rooms, the distinct lack of a locker-room stench—I decide I’m just fine without the $81 spent this semester on rec center fees.
Construction of the 79,000 square foot facility began in June of 2000 after students voted to increase their student activity fee to $81 from $16. The center was expected to open for the 2001 fall semester, but construction setbacks and the September 11 tragedy pushed the full opening to January 2002. Campus Recreation tried to meet the demand, opening parts of the center in late October, while the campus community applied ongoing pressure to fling open all the doors. The Associated Students of UM even passed a resolution urging the administration to refund fees to students who paid but were not able to use the center in its entirety.
But everyone in the rec center on days like today breathes, or rather, pants a sigh of relief and a sigh of appreciation. In the basement, outside one of the hardwood-floored rooms used for fitness classes, a sign reads: “Let’s protect our investment.” And indeed, most of the UM students, faculty, staff, and alumni using the rec center consider the facility theirs.
I walk to the third floor and ask a few students to show me around. “You gotta see this,” they tell me with a gleam in their eyes. It feels like I’m on a tour of someone’s new home. The third floor houses the Cybex machines, the spin bicycles, a cushioned track hanging over the basketball courts, a family of stationary bikes, a few elliptical machines, a handful of Stairmasters, and two treadmills. It’s here you’ll find the puffed up chests in cut-off T-shirts hefting the brushed steel, art-deco looking free weights, the popular spin classes, and people like me, hoping for spring, but being perfectly content on a treadmill because of the light streaming through the windows.
Next, I bop down the stairs to the second floor—home to the center’s most exciting features (at least for me): the juice bar and the climbing wall. The Bi-Sip is a cozy little shop where one can wind down after a workout or, before a workout, pump a little energy into the body with a Bench Press Smoothie. I stroll across the lobby and hit the climbing wall. Stepping onto the spongy floor, I peer up the fifty-foot tower dotted with whimsical pastel shapes—the bread and butter of a rock climber’s existence—places to grip and pull, ledges to balance on. And perhaps places to contemplate the straight drop down twenty feet. Or not. UM junior Caroline Kim is lacing up her shoes to climb. She says the most appealing part of the rock gym is the convenience of having a wall right on campus. The staff, she says, is great with adding new problems to keep her challenged, and the boulder room is superior.
When UM’s Campus Recreation started drafting plans for the building, the rock gym was a priority. Given the space they had to work with, the climbing wall is superb. It doesn’t compare with a few other facilities in town, but it’s great for classes and climbers on the fly.
As I walk onto one of the four basketball/volleyball courts, I reminisce about the good old days in Schrieber Gym, waiting fifteen minutes for a treadmill older than I am. Now it’s hard to think of ever working out in anything but this. I think back to the old rec center and remember the dinginess in the air, the grime beneath my feet, the tiny rock wall, and that smell we all recall not so fondly.
“We were so inadequately equipped to serve a campus this big,” says Sonya Tysk, manager of fitness programs, from her office, peering out into the third floor full of bustling fitness nut Tysk points out that the building has done more for Campus Rec than just supply more space and less stench. When the initial plans for the center were being drafted, Dudley Improta, assistant director of programming, says the deal was that Campus Rec would have to “step up their game” through expanding programs and services. Programming, including fitness classes, has taken a huge leap. Students now can take classes ranging from the popular spinning classes to tai chi, two kinds of yoga to kick boxing, and even a “muscle of the month” workout. With all of this “step-up,” the rec center also had to add staff. Campus Rec is now one of the top three student employers on campus.
“You can have a bunch of machines, but without the staff and the programs, you have nothing,” Tysk says.
And all of this—new facility, new equipment, better programming, expanded outdoor equipment rental, and increased staff available for fitness coaching and consultations—has produced precisely what Campus Rec wanted—more people. It has created a new gym culture of sorts, says senior Casey Ruggiero. As she walks through the third floor, she greets almost every passer-by. When you keep coming at the same time, she says, you start to develop a relationship with people you work out with. It helps with motivation, she says, because if you aren’t there one day, someone is asking why you weren’t.
The social aspect, Improta says, is one of the most important things to develop in a club. And Tysk, Improta, Ruggiero, and I all agree: rec users are like one big happy, healthy family. There is a constant stream of users throughout the day. At first, Tysk says, it took people a while to start flocking in, but slowly, since opening day, more and more people are coming. And it’s not just the students who appreciate the new facility. Walking down the ramp to the racquetball courts, I run into two UM retirees: Jan Wollershiem, a retired psychology professor, and Dan Smith, retired director of educational outreach at the Center for Continuing Education. The two are getting ready for a workout. They say the new center has been well worth the wait. Before joining at the discounted fee for faculty, staff, and alumni, the two researched other centers in town and said the University’s was “absolutely tops.”
Outside the rock gym, Cassie Ammen, a Loyola High School junior, is unlacing her climbing shoes. She joined when her sister, a UM student, sponsored a membership for her. She’s been climbing for a year and a half and says she comes to use the climbing wall because of the great boulder cave. It’s hard to find a quiet moment in the gym, especially during the day. I walk from the climbing wall to the gleaming stone floor of the entrance foyer that opens overhead to the third floor, feel the buzz of exercise machines, hear the thump of basketballs, smell the froth of fruit juices and espresso, and know I’m in another world.
“Just don’t come at 5 p.m.” Ruggiero says, laughing. “It feels like you’re walking through the mall. There’s more make-up than sweat here at 5 p.m.”
Courtney Lowery is a UM senior in journalism and editor of the Montana Kaimin. She will work as an intern with the Chronicle for Higher Education in Washington, D.C., this summer.