“Welcome to Michigan.”
A maize banner hung next to the entrance of the Central Campus Recreation Building for the final week of August with these words written in blue letters — a small act designed to help returning and incoming students feel welcomed in one of the school’s most-visited buildings.
But once inside, welcoming probably isn’t the right word to convey the building’s atmosphere. On the first floor, dozens of students can be found waiting in line for pick-up games of basketball and volleyball, while above them two friends cut their run short due to the uneven track.
Further down the hall, patrons are disappointed to learn of the pool’s early closure because there is a shortage of lifeguards.
Downstairs, the weight room features 64 men, zero women and one window.
Welcome to Michigan.
Every day, the recreational sports department at the University does what they can to address crowds, outdated equipment and comfortable environments, but sometimes the facts pile up just a little too high.
It’s a fact that when the CCRB was built in 1977, enrollment was 26,673. Today it sits at 43,625 — a 63.5-percent increase — but the University’s primary fitness facility has yet to undergo any expansionary construction.
It’s a fact that the average age of equipment at the CCRB is cited by its directors as nine years old and features a track and pool that haven’t been updated in more than two decades.
The University — one of the founding fathers of intramural and recreational sports — has fallen behind other schools, small and large, in the quality of its fitness facilities, and must raise the bar in order to keep up.
Welcome to Michigan.
As a freshman, you were undoubtedly told of what recreational sports had to offer. With three major fitness centers, all equipped with weights, gymnasiums, cardio equipment and pools, there’s plenty of great options to exercise year-round for no additional charge.
Engineering freshman Melinda Kothbauer remembers how excited she was when she heard about the opportunities that would be before her when she finally made it to campus.
“It’s easy to forget how nice it is to have multiple gyms within walking distance that don’t cost anything extra,” Kothbauer said. “Other schools do it too I guess, but it’s still really nice.”
Kothbauer said she has enjoyed the CCRB in her first semester, so much so that she bought a U-Move season pass, giving her access to a variety of fitness classes. But her appreciation didn’t come without some early lessons.
“I remember walking into the weight room, and just seeing all these huge guys around,” Kothbauer said. “It was really intimidating, especially since I’m not a weightlifter or anything.
“It’s kind of like that everywhere (in the building). You can tell the majority of the people who use the CCRB work out all the time, so you definitely feel self-conscious and avoid peak hours if that isn’t you.”
Kothbauer said she grew accustomed to the CCRB, but her past experiences with gyms left the CCRB with more to be desired.
“They sound like really small things, but I’ve worked out at gyms in the past that had windows, high ceilings, natural lighting, places to set your stuff and just more space,” Kothbauer said. “It all seems small, but it adds up to the overall experience.”
She’s not alone. When the CCRB opened in 1977, Rocky Balboa had just started downing raw eggs and punching meat carcasses in gray sweatsuits, giving fitness a very distinct brand. To say working out has changed since then is an understatement.
Mike Widen, the director of Recreational Sports at the University, is well aware of these expanded boundaries. Since arriving to Ann Arbor from the University of Iowa last September, Widen has pushed for major overhauls in all three facilities. The initiative could be realized thanks to a $65 per-student fee enacted last year, and has already brought forth new turf and lighting systems at Mitchell Field.
As of right now, the Intramural Sports Building will begin renovations in May, the North Campus Recreation Building will begin in 2016 and — provided the Kinesiology research facilities and classrooms currently located throughout can be vacated to new buildings — the CCRB will begin construction in 2020.
The reasons for these renovations, Widen said, are obvious.
Recreation has changed a lot since the facilities were built in 1928 and 1976. Wilden said today, there is more group exercising, cardio and need for multipurpose rooms. The University’s facilities, he said, simply don’t match up.
“Our students deserve to have modern and enjoyable exercise opportunities as part of their experience here on campus,” he said. “We hadn’t really invested a lot in the past few decades in that idea. Now we have the opportunity to get our facilities upgraded so they’re worthy of the Michigan brand and the Michigan standard.”
Rec Sport’s struggle to keep up with students’ interests is especially surprising given the University’s storied history of recreational sports.
In 1913, the University was first in the nation to create a formal department for recreation on a college campus. Fifteen years later, it built the IMSB, the first dedicated intramural facility in the country. Then-Athletic Director Fielding Yost stressed the importance of access to athletics for all, using the mantra “sound mind, sound body.”
The mantra isn’t located on any mission statements today, but still rings true in the offices of recreational sports. Constant efforts are made by the department to engage, encourage and build excitement around fitness, exercise and wellness in the student body.
“We’re changing,” Widen said. “We’re adding new programs. The programs that we have are very popular, more than ever here at Michigan, so there’s a lot of good energy going on. But that means the bar’s being raised by our students.”
In 2014, many feel that the bar simply isn’t being met.
In many senses of the word, the University’s Recreational Sports is out of shape. While nine Big Ten schools made Men’s Fitness’ most recent “Top 25 fittest colleges” list (including Michigan State University ranked at third and The Ohio State University ranked first), the University hasn’t made the cut in the four years that data has been collected.
A look at Ohio State’s facilities provides a glimpse into what the University can be. The campus features five fitness buildings within the confines of campus, with its central location amassing more than 500,000 square feet (compared to the CCRB’s 145,000) and has been cited by numerous publications as one of the nation’s best.
All facilities feature lounges and leisure activities to help students relax and de-stress while improving their physical health. Additionally, Ohio State has dedicated itself to providing for its students — from free fitness tests to an open forum for voicing comments about the facilities.
This all came to be in recent years not from long battles with the University’s Board of Regents or tuition increases like Wilden and his department are facing, but from dozens of donors and sponsors who saw the benefits of sound mind, sound body.
“Right now, a lot of the newer recreation buildings in the Big Ten and across the country have formed into this social opportunity on campus,” Widen said. “It’s not just a place to work out anymore. Looking at our three facilities, we don’t really have that. We have a few couches, but that’s not very welcoming.
“We want health and wellness and fitness to be a part of students’ lives, so we need our centers to be comfortable, welcoming and a place where people want to go, not just a destination people only go to for working out.”
The spectacle down in Columbus is still largely a pipe dream for University students. New facilities are two years away, and the renovations of the NCRB and CCRB have yet to be officially designed, budgeted or approved.
University students likely won’t make the four-hour commute to Columbus to work out anytime soon, but does Michigan need to worry about competition? According to Kothbauer, they should.
“I’ve definitely considered other gyms and would consider other ones too,” Kothbauer said. “I don’t have a car, so the CCRB is still my best option, but a lot of these gyms are just nicer to work out in.”
Transportation has prevented Kothbauer from going elsewhere, but some have made the switch.
The Och Fitness Center, located in the basement of the Ross School of Business, offers memberships to students, limited guests, faculty and staff of Michigan’s business and law schools for $30 a month. It’s not for everyone, but Och sees plenty of business from students despite the fee.
“A lot of my friends use it too, it’s pretty common as far as I can tell,” said Business junior Ian Forman, who’s had a membership since he was a pre-admit. “Part of it is for convenience since your classes are in the same building, but it’s also really nice and well taken care of. In my experience it’s well worth the money.”
Widen said he hates to see his facilities not providing for its students, but he also can’t blame them for leaving.
“A lot of what causes that is facilities and equipment,” Widen said. “We have not kept our equipment up to the national standard or even to the area standard. The way things are now if you want the top-of-the-line treadmills you have to go somewhere else.”
The CCRB is still nearly six years away from renovations, but efforts are being made to keep up now. New equipment will arrive to the CCRB in the winter semester, extended hours and social media presence are hoping to engage students to work out and new group exercise classes have begun this fall. It’s no cure-all, but their hope is the little things and dedication can eventually save the day.
“If you look at recreational sports across the country, we may have been the last school to start a group exercise program, which you never want to say when you’re at Michigan,” Widen said. “But we wanted to give students that experience and we’re continuing to try things out and catch up.”
Other options are sprouting up, and the students Rec Sports have spent nearly a century catering to are slowly walking away. The migration is slow for now, but can the CCRB keep up?
“The bar’s been raised,” Widen said. “We can’t just sit back and let things be what they’ve always been. We’ve got to do our part to meet that bar and those raised expectations.”
Welcome to Michigan.