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A Tight Fit: Fitness-focused Ambrosians Show Need to Grow

July 2013 | by Craig DeVrieze

Kate Ross didn't come to St. Ambrose to get fit. She arrived that way. Still, a date with a set of barbells or a treadmill is a routine part of the sophomore's weekday agenda.

"Monday and Thursday are arm days," said the nursing major from Champaign, Ill. "Tuesday and Wednesday are leg days."

Ross-who weighs 125 pounds, but can lift 160-spends an hour-and-a-half each of those days in the very busy weight-lifting and elliptical workout facility on the second floor of the PE Center, continuing a passion she developed as a high school track and field competitor.

"When I got to college, I bumped it up a notch," she said of her workout routine. "I think it boosts my self-esteem and it really brings me into an atmosphere where everyone else is passionate about lifting, working out, and sports. It is a good community."

It also is a large and growing community.

Although national studies show the current generation of American collegians are less fit and fitness-focused than preceding generations, that isn't necessarily true at St. Ambrose.

More than 750 of the 3,500-plus students who enrolled at SAU for the 2012-13 academic year were athletes, and 40 percent of all undergraduate students participated last year in intramural sports and recreational activities.

Meg Halligan '89, assistant vice president for admissions, said prospective St. Ambrose students and their parents increasingly are interested in knowing what amenities the school has to offer that can help students stay strong and healthy.

It is a trend that has paralleled the growth in undergraduate and graduate programs offered through the College of Health and Human Services.

"I think this is really important for recruitment," Halligan said. "The interest in wellness has increased."

This is good news. Yet, it also amplifies a significant campus need.

The PE Center was built in 1982 to accommodate the growth at that time of both varsity athletics and general enrollment at St. Ambrose.

It was not built to accommodate the substantial growth that is happening in the present.

"They built what they could afford back in 1982," said Mike Poster '88, vice president for finance at St. Ambrose. "It was a huge improvement from what they had at the time, but our on-campus population has probably grown by a factor of four since then, and we are still in that same building."

Cramped, yet spread out

Actually, not everyone who ideally would be in the building is. The PE Center's cramped quarters have forced more than two-thirds of the SAU athletic staff into offices in Davis and Ambrose Halls or, in the case of football coaches, to an annex a mile from campus.

Football players have had their own weight room in that annex since 2010, a change that was made to ensure the on-campus workout room would be available to other students most hours of the day.

The PE Center also offers limited locker room space, forcing a majority of athletes to use lockers in the basement of LeClaire Hall or to dress in their residence hall rooms.

Then there is the matter of making use of the one gymnasium on campus. The volleyball teams have been known to practice as late as 10 p.m. on basketball game nights. And, to accommodate women's basketball, the men's hoops team routinely stages its afternoon practices at the

Beyond the Baseline facility on the former Marycrest College campus.

"A lot of it just comes down to needing more space," said Ray Shovlain '79, '82 MBA, the men's head basketball coach and SAU athletic director. "If we could practice three teams at the same time in the same building, it would free up more time for general student use."

Student use of the gymnasium is, indeed, another piece of the puzzle. To accommodate the 40-plus volleyball teams and more than 55 basketball teams that participated in intramural leagues this past year, Recreation Director Andy Milton had to become a circus-worthy juggler.

Ross, the sophomore nursing student, played intramural volleyball and said she was on the court as late as 11 p.m., which was not exactly helpful when it came to acing a pop quiz in an 8 a.m. biology course. "We get to bed pretty late some times after games," she said.

Milton said that is a problem.

"To me it's a customer-service issue for the students," he said. "At the same time, I will tell you campus recreation is just as big a cause for the overcrowding at the PE Center. When we are in there, that thing is booked from 4 p.m. until 11 p.m. There is no time for that informal game of pick-up basketball or volleyball or badminton."

Since Milton became director six years ago, the campus recreation offerings have grown extensively. Last year, three club sports were added to the campus activity roster. In August, that number will grow to 10.

Also growing in popularity, especially among female students, are aerobic dance activities such as Zumba. Space constrictions at the PE Center have forced Milton to schedule those classes, some of which number 50 students, in the ballroom at the Rogalski Center. And that, of course, is subject to the ballroom's availability.

"It's a strain," Milton said of attempting to fit a fitness-driven student body into currently available space.

Which means it is past time to grow.

New Wellness Center High Priority

Construction of a new health and wellness center was identified as the highest priority in a 10-year Master Plan approved by the Board of Trustees in the fall of 2011.

"A building like this is an absolute necessity," said Sister Joan Lescinski, CSJ, PhD, university president. "It will complete the outstanding range of new and renovated facilities available to serve our students."

Preliminary plans call for a new building to be constructed just west of the PE Center, utilizing space that currently is used as a practice football field.

Poster said the new building could be as large as 100,000 square feet. It ideally would include three to four basketball courts, an indoor running track, and an expanded cardio workout and weight-lifting center.

In conjunction with the reconfigured space in the PE Center, the addition would allow Kinesiology Department classrooms, labs and offices-most but not all of which are currently located in Hayes Hall-to find a common home.

Additional locker room space and an expanded sports medicine area also would be accommodated. And the men's and women's basketball teams could practice-on campus-simultaneously, while accommodating a more customer-friendly student recreation schedule as well.

A detailed construction plan, a final budget, and a definitive timetable are pending, Poster said, but ideally the new facility would be completed within the next five years.

That won't be a minute to soon, according to Shovlain.

The longtime coach said he frequently visits suburban high schools with larger and more modern workout facilities than he can show recruits here. He said many of the colleges that SAU coaches compete against on the recruiting trail also have better facilities.

Shovlain, Halligan and Poster all said the state-of-the-art residential halls and an expanding catalog of first-class academic offerings at St. Ambrose have been major assets in recruiting athletes and non-athletes alike.

As for wellness and athletics facilities? "We have worked around it," Halligan said.

That is getting harder to do.

"It's the third leg of recruitment," Poster said. "And we don't feel we have as quality a facility as a lot of other schools. Our board members who have taken their sons and daughters on college trips would say those are things that really are noticed when you are visiting a campus.

"If we can make a new structure include all the things that would be important to students and to student-athletes, it is certainly going to improve our recruiting."

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