Editor’s note: Ten years ago, the Kenyon Athletic Center opened its doors to the Kenyon College community. To commemorate this anniversary, we are republishing this article from the spring/summer 2006 issue of the Alumni Bulletin.
They gazed. They grinned. Fingers pointed, superlatives flowed. "Fantastic." "Fabulous." "Spectacular."
When the new Kenyon Athletic Center (KAC) opened its doors on Jan. 25, the campus community collectively gaped in wonder — at the indoor track and the array of new exercise machines in the weight and fitness room, at the expansive pool and its high-tech scoreboard, at the squash and racquetball courts, at the gleaming arena and the sleek theater. At the sheer size and newness and beauty of the place, the effect of glass and steel, openness and light.
But the most remarkable thing about the KAC's maiden semester was how, from the very first gawking day, students simply went in and made the building their own. For that matter, so did professors, and Kenyon retirees, and staff members who had rarely set foot in a College gym before.
"I was amazed," says Peter T.C. Smith, director of athletics, fitness and recreation. "It was as if we went from zero to 60 miles an hour in four seconds."
In short, Kenyon's newest building, which opened this winter after nearly three years of construction, was an immediate hit. Students, coaches and others say that the KAC has not only provided superb, and sorely needed, new facilities for everyone from varsity athletes to lunch-hour fitness buffs. It has also sparked a new sense of community, sometimes in delightfully unanticipated ways.
"At six in the morning, which is when the building opens on weekdays, there are usually a few people waiting to get in," notes Douglas Zipp, KAC director. The building, he says, began pulsing to its own rhythm before it was a week old.
The hours from 6 to 8 a.m. are quietly busy, with varsity teams practicing and early-birds working out. Activity picks up dramatically between noon and 1:30. Walkers and joggers circle the track, lap swimmers churn through the pool, the squash courts resound with the pock! of balls. Music carries an aerobics class through its routines in one of the mirrored multipurpose rooms.
But the noon-hour bustle is nothing next to the blur of late afternoon. From 4 to 7 p.m., it seems as if everyone has come down the Hill to the KAC. Students pack the weight and fitness room, legs pumping on the Cybex machines, lifters grunting out their reps. "It looks like the whole room is moving," says Emily Mountain, coordinator for lifetime fitness and physical education.
And so it goes, into the evening. Three nights a week, the Kenyon Film Society shows movies in the theater. The group tried out the new venue at the start of the semester, then booked it for the season.
Meanwhile, there are always pickup basketball games or intramural contests going on in the MAC gym — MAC for multi-activity court, a general-purpose gym open to everyone. With the MAC gym, there are no more conflicts between recreational users and the varsity basketball and volleyball teams, which use the arena. It's one of the many striking improvements over the College's former athletic facilities in the Wertheimer Fieldhouse and the Ernst Center, both seriously inadequate in everything from space to ventilation.
Wertheimer was razed in 2003 to make way for the new building. Ernst closed with the opening of the KAC. It will be refurbished as a temporary dining hall, to be used while Peirce and Dempsey halls undergo renovation. Eventually, Ernst will be torn down as well.
For coaches and varsity athletes, the new building has eliminated logistical woes while boosting morale. With four competition-quality indoor courts, the men's and women's tennis teams were able to start their seasons in February, at home, rather than squeeze their entire schedule into the final weeks of the semester, mostly on the road. "That reduces physical stress," observes coach Scott Thielke, "not to mention mental stress — we're no longer playing most of our varsity matches during academic crunch time."
As soon as the KAC opened, the baseball team began using the spacious infield area of the track, where drop-down netting can subdivide the space, so that pitchers and catchers can work out on one side, fielders on the other. The netting also provides a batting cage and — not least of all — encloses the whole area, protecting the glass walls.
"In the past, it was difficult to have a full-team winter workout," says coach Matt Burdette. "The players would have to come down several times, in different groups, to practice, lift and do conditioning. This space, its functionality, its design — it's outstanding. And we can use the conference rooms or theater for skull sessions. Before, we had no place to meet."
The track program, meanwhile, had no place to hold a meet during the indoor season.
That changed on Feb. 10, when the KAC welcomed 18 teams to the Kenyon Invitational, the first track meet — indoor or outdoor — that the College had hosted in 15 years.
Kenyon's coaches, who regularly travel to athletic centers around the country, don't hesitate when asked how the KAC compares. "In all of my experience as both a player and a coach, spanning 25 years, I have never seen a facility like this at any campus, ever," says Suzanne Helfant, the women's basketball coach. "Every coach from another team that has walked in here — their jaws drop."
Mountain adds that while new athletic centers at many universities are bigger, "in terms of quality, architecture, and amenities, we're right up there. For schools of this size, there's nothing like it."
"The morale of the student athletes is as good as we've ever had it," says Thielke. "They want to come to practice now during the winter."
And they love competing in the KAC. "The new pool is amazing, one of the fastest pools in the state if not the country," says David DeHart '06, a swimmer from Providence, Rhode Island. "It has already become a centerpiece of Kenyon swimming pride. The building design is great. The abundance of windows makes everyone happier."
The size and quality of the pool brought in great competition this season. Both the Lords and Ladies swam home meets in February against Penn State University. The Kenyon men also hosted (and defeated) Johns Hopkins University, reviving an old dual-meet rivalry.
The new Tomsich Arena, meanwhile, quickly won over the basketball teams. "During practices, there's an intimate, pristine feeling," says Helfant. "The players can actually hear me. And during games, it's loud. The crowd noise bounces off the glass walls and comes right down onto the court. We want that energy from the fans."
Katy Zeanah '06, a basketball standout from New Orleans, adds that she and her teammates appreciate the fact that, in the weight room and elsewhere in KAC, they rub shoulders with athletes from other teams and with non-varsity students, as well as with faculty members and administrators. "It's great for the campus and the community."
Like a lively urban neighborhood, the building fosters a sense of community by multiplying casual encounters. "Our tennis players can finish practice at 7:30, take a shower, see that a varsity basketball game is going on, and stay to watch the game," says Thielke. "Or some people working out in the weight room will see that we have a match and come over to watch. That kind of thing never happened before."
The difference is that Kenyon's indoor athletic and recreational facilities are now all under a single roof, in a building where the glass walls afford views of activity in every direction. "Everything is close by," says Helfant. "It's all here. There's a life that's breathed into the building. I'm a big believer that energy begets energy. And there's a lot of energy in this building."
Smith calls the feeling "an exciting intimacy" and notes that it owes something to the nonathletic spaces of the KAC, too. "Students have discovered all of these new places to gather," he says. They chat, read or work on laptops in the glass-enclosed poolside lounge, the lobby area beside the MAC gym, the mezzanine-level alcoves with their comfortable chairs, and the "viewing plaza" in the lower-level squash and racquetball area. The conference rooms have become popular meeting spaces for faculty and staff from around campus.
In addition, Smith and the coaches have been pleasantly surprised by the way the building has promoted esprit de corps within their department. "Now we pass each other in the hallway or run into each other in the mail room," says Burdette. The coaches have more occasions to exchange ideas, to congratulate one another on wins and commiserate over losses. "I think we're all more invested in Kenyon athletics," Burdette adds — "not just our own programs, but the whole program. In the department, morale is at an all-time high."
In fact, the athletic staff has started its own intramural program. Three days a week, after the noontime crowd dissipates, the coaches take a lunch hour to play basketball or racquetball. "This is something that just happened spontaneously," says Zipp. "It's a bonding experience."
KAC has turned out to be a spontaneous bonding experience for the whole campus. "It's everything we envisioned," says Zipp. "It's a building for everyone."
Sports wouldn't be half as much fun without the statistics — and, in the KAC's case, the first statistic to absorb is its sheer size: 263,000 square feet and a curving roof whose peak is 50 feet off the floor. Just how big is that? Associate Professor of Mathematics Judy Holdener asked three Kenyon math majors to find out.
Lee Kennard '07, Will Stanton '08 and Laura Czarnecki '08 report: "It's pretty big." More specifically, they calculated that all of the following could fit inside KAC (although not all at once):
The students add: