At 84, professor emeritus Jim Stevens is unofficially the oldest member of the W.F. Mitchell Athletics Centre on campus — and not just because of his age. He was at the facility on the day it opened in 1958 and most days since then.
With the centre undergoing some growing pains — closed swimming pools and fitness rooms, piles of dust and debris — as part of a $45-million expansion, Stevens is reminiscing about the days when it was the place on campus, with all the latest and greatest.
He’s counting the days until he can resume his fitness routine this summer and looking ahead to when the revamped 170,000-square-foot facility opens in 2016.
These days, Stevens walks in the Arboretum or on the track in the nearby Field House, works out in the weight room and swims — well, swam. The Gold pool where he has done laps at least three days a week for decades was drained and closed while its exterior walls and roof are reinforced as part of the expansion.
Bill Clausen, Athletics Centre building manager, says the pool should reopen at the end of June or early July. The same goes for the Red pool, the cardio and wrestling rooms on the east side of the building, and the main gym, all of which are currently closed.
Although those facilities will reopen, Clausen warns users to expect disruptions. “Basically, we’ll be living with this for about two-and-a-half years by the time we get everything done.”
As the slogan on the new T-shirts being sported by Athletics Centre staff says: “Short-term pain for long-term gain.”
A bigger and better facility will provide more diverse fitness offerings and more intramural and varsity opportunities for U of G students, says athletics director Tom Kendall. He says the expansion will put Guelph and Gryphon athletics on the map as a centre of excellence in active living.
That’s fitting, says Stevens. “The Athletics Centre was considered state-of-the-art when it opened. We were at the top.”
When he arrived on campus in 1957 as a physics professor, there was no such centre — just a “bathtub of a pool” and a space known as the “box gym” where the arts building is now, he says.
That gym was so short that former Ontario Agricultural College dean Clay Switzer “could stand in the middle and fire balls and hit the basket.”
The Athletics Centre opened in 1958 with great fanfare, says Stevens, who, as the building’s unofficial historian, has a mental Rolodex of memories and tales to share.
Back then, the main gym bleachers went all the way to the ceiling; there was no second-floor weight room or cardio room, he says. An ice rink and two curling lanes occupied the space where the west gym is now located. The Gold pool and twin-pad arenas came later and were a welcomed addition.
Fitness has always been a part of Stevens’s life, including skiing, running, playing basketball and farming (until 2010, he ran a 100-acre farm on Stone Road).
A former basketball player for the University of Toronto, Stevens is six-foot-six , “or I was, I think I’ve shrunk about four inches.” He continued playing basketball after university for more than 50 years.
“I remember playing when I was about 50 in the United States when I was on leave, but having trouble with my hip muscles due to the non-resilient floor boards down there,” he says.
When he returned to U of G, he replaced the sport with running in the Arboretum, but continued coaching and mentoring U of G basketball players and helping initiate the “faculty adviser” role in athletics.
Stevens joined the Athletics Centre when it first opened to connect with his students where they hung out. Students paid for the original building “so that the next generation could have opportunities,” he says.
That tradition of student support continues today. The new fitness and recreation complex is being funded through student contributions pledged in a 2010 referendum. The Gryphon Athletics fundraising campaign is ongoing for Phase 2 of the expansion, which will include upgrades and renovations to the existing building.
That student referendum also funded U of G’s new outdoor sports complex, including two soccer fields, a rugby field and a practice half-field.
“This addition is needed to catch up with the calibre of outdoor facilities,” Stevens says.
He’s looking forward to the 2016 grand opening — and to the reopening of his beloved Gold pool, with its eight lanes and lifeguards. “Even at 84 you’ve got to keep fit for what lies ahead,” he says with a smile.