The Nicholas Recreation Center is home to approximately 30,000 square feet of fitness space, including eight courts and five studios, as well as an Olympic size pool on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. But while the facility is only operating at 25% capacity, this seemingly enormous gym has proven to fill up incredibly fast, resulting in a crowded facility and long lines.
Jake Broihahn, a junior studying mechanical engineering at UW-Madison, expressed his dismay with the “Nick” — the new facility’s nickname — and how it drove him to switch to a private gym over the university provided one.
“I think that overcrowding in [the] gym is a big problem, especially during Covid,” Broihahn said. “Working out becomes less fun and more stressful when you are shoulder to shoulder with other students and have to wait to get in/use equipment. Overcrowding has made me not want to work out at the Nick.”
While campus buildings are still operating at 25% capacity — which is no change from the fall semester — students are still experiencing long wait times at the facility due to the number of students who want to use the free facility. On average, the Nick is welcoming around 3,200 users per day during the week and 1,600 users on the weekend, according to Director Aaron Hobson.
“We are seeing a major increase in demand as compared to the — about 500-600 more users each day,” Hobson said. “It’s not uncommon for us to see an increase in facility usage during the colder months, particularly following the holiday break and New Year’s resolutions. There’s a feeling that more students have returned to campus for spring semester and are feeling more comfortable accessing our facilities due to campus’ new testing strategy and future vaccination distribution.”
Last week, the Nick welcomed its highest number of users to date with nearly 20,000 total visits in a week. The highest weekly access in fall semester was around 16,000 users.
UW-Madison junior, Sydney Heimer also stated her displeasure with the wait times and crowds at the Nick during the new semester.
“The overcrowding has been tough,” Heimer said. “It disrupts my normal routine because I have to go at different times to avoid lines or it adds extra time when I do have to wait in line. It also is stressful to try to stay socially distant the whole time when it is so crowded — you’re forced to be too close to people sometimes.”
Heimer expressed her dismay with not being able to join a private gym due to the financial implications that come with a membership. Students like Broihahn who have opted to utilize private gyms are grateful to have an escape from one of the only fitness centers on campus, as another on-campus facility, the Natatorium, closed in August for renovations.
“I choose to go to a private gym over the Nick to avoid crowds,” Broihahn said. “I feel safer working out in a less crowded gym and can also get my workout done faster so I can get back to my classwork.”
Increased volume of occupants at the Nick has driven students to pay out of pocket for private gyms near campus rather than wait in line for the free gym on campus. However, these issues of overcrowding come deeply rooted in the socioeconomic disparities that are already prevalent on the UW-Madison campus.
The Nick has increased its hours and updated its website to include occupancy and wait times in real time in hopes of combating these issues.
Ethan Lim, a junior at UW-Madison majoring in computer engineering and computer science, set out to find another, more useful solution for students to track the occupancy level at the Nick.
Lim created the Twitter bot @IstheNickFull to update students about occupancy and wait times every 25 minutes. The bot tweets whether or not the Nick is full and the current occupancy rate.
Meredith McGlone, Director of News and Media Relations for the University, communicated the efforts that faculty and staff have put forth to make the facility accessible for all students.
“We understand that RecWell facilities are an important outlet for students during the pandemic and we’re working to provide as much access as possible while continuing to enforce public health policies, including limits on occupancy, use of face coverings and cleaning protocols,” McGlone said. “We’ve been able to reduce lines and wait times by expanding hours. We're also continuing to offer a wide variety of virtual programming, including group fitness and intramural sports, that students can participate in from home.”
With the recent closing of the Natatorium, students are swarming to the Nick in hopes to relieve stress through exercise during these unprecedented times. To accommodate these demands, the Associated Students of Madison (ASM) implemented a bus system to take students from the Nick to the Shell in order to address overcrowding issues. However, many students opted out of this option, as it adds extra time onto their workout routine.
“As we pass the one-year mark of the pandemic, the toll on mental and physical health is enormous,” Hobson said. “It’s clear that RecWell facilities, programs and services are needed now more than ever.”