An Olympic Cathedral

Three! Two! One…Go!” As the whistle blows, paddles quickly enter the water. Two canoes suddenly jerk apart from one another, heading in opposite directions. The men inside paddle ferociously, each trying to drag the other canoe behind them across the finish line. Suddenly, one team starts to gain momentum, paddling harder and eventually pulling the opposing canoe across the line.

A rare scene for sure, as canoe tug of war is not a traditional sport. But, it was made even more unique by the fact that this was not taking place in a lake or river, but rather an Olympic-size swimming pool.

From outside, the Georgia Institute of Technology Recreation Center resembles a stadium, and on the inside, the majesty continues. As you walk through the front doors, you enter a sprawling lobby, overlooking the expansive fitness floor and rock-climbing wall. Just beyond the fitness floor, behind a glass wall, is the aquatic center, perhaps one of the most notable features of the facility.

When asked what is one of his favorite spots in the recreation center, Michael Edwards, the director of campus recreation, glances toward the pool. Edwards was hired in 1992, to help the university prepare for the 1996 Olympic games. Since Edwards had spent the bulk of his career in aquatics, having been a part of the management teams for three Olympic games, he seemed like the perfect man for the job.


Perhaps one of the most daunting challenges throughout the process of planning the Aquatics Center was balancing the needs of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) with the needs of the university. “ACOG had their mission, which was to put on the Olympic games for two weeks and Georgia Tech had its mission, which was to have a facility that was usable for the next 30 to 40 years,” said Edwards. “It was a matter of developing a partnership and working with ACOG so that we could have things in the facility that would help us with our long-term goals, but still accomplish their short-term goals.”

Edwards explained meeting the requirements of both parties took extreme patience and collaboration. Communication was crucial in ensuring everyone’s needs were met. For example, for the Olympics, the pool needed to be outdoors. Post games, the university desired to have an indoor aquatics center, as well as a large recreation center for the expanding student population.

This is where innovation and creativity proved valuable. “We needed a new facility, and how we were going to do that was the real question,” explained Edwards. “We worked with the architecture firm Hastings and Chivetta, and we came in under the original aquatic center roof structure and built a floor over the top using bridging technologies. We actually built a bridge inside of the roof structure, so above the aquatics center we have six basketball courts, three dance studios, an in-line hockey rink and an elevated, four-lane running track with great views of downtown Atlanta.”

With the addition of the aquatics center and new recreational space, the original student recreation center expanded from 90,000 square feet to 300,000 square feet. “When the architect designed it, one of our goals was when you walk in the building it has the ‘wow’ factor,” added Edwards. “It is open, there is a lot of glass, sunshine, energy and it starts right there at the front door because you are looking at a 15,000-square-foot fitness center. Then when you walk in farther, there is a glass wall and you can look right into the Olympic Aquatic Center.”

Of course the fun is not limited to inside the walls of the recreation center. Located directly next to the facility is 175,000 square feet of artificial turf with a running track around it.


However, as Edwards pointed out, campus recreation is more than just fitness; it is about providing students with experiences outside of the classroom. “We thought about what is going to make a difference with our students,” he said. “We do a great job in the academic area, and when students graduate they are ready to become great employees, but they also need effective communication and leadership skills and campus recreation can have an impact on that.”

This is where the Leadership Challenge Course comes in. Located less than a block away from the recreation center, in the heart of downtown Atlanta, is a two-story challenge course that cost over $2.1 million dollars to build.

Academic classes, student organizations, departments on campus and companies off campus can utilize the course. “When groups contact us, we work to identify what their specific objectives are and then structure the program so that it is addressing whatever topics that they have identified as important to them,” said David Knobbe, the assistant director for outdoor recreation.

While many might associate a challenge course with team building, Knobbe explained the goal is much greater. Throughout the course, groups will encounter various obstacles that require collaboration. “We really try to identify strengths of the team and areas that may need improvement,” added Knobbe. “Once the group is done we send them on their way, hopefully with new ideas about how they are going to work together in the future to be more effective. Our hope is the groups recognize the challenge course not as a one-and-done type of experience, but instead as the beginning of a learning process.”

Collaboration is not only essential on the challenge course, but according to Edwards, it is also crucial to the success of the department. When highlighting the various aspects of campus recreation at Georgia Tech, he is quick to boast about the entire department. Edwards explained it is more than the bricks and sticks that make the recreation center stand out.


“No one single person can take credit for the success of this department,” added Edwards. “It is a team of extremely dedicated professionals that have put together programs and services that emphasize what campus recreation departments should bring to a major research university — student development, healthy lifestyles and life-long learning.”

And Edwards is not exaggerating. Over the past nine years, the campus recreation professional staff has won 10 campus-wide outstanding staff awards, ranging from administrative excellence to management in action and service to the community. “What is interesting is that others outside of the department nominated them,” added Edwards. “I always tell people how great the team is, but I didn’t nominate them for any of those awards. People outside of the department did, so that speaks volumes about them.”

According to Edwards, having such a strong, dedicated team of leaders has been the reason Georgia Tech recreation has seen such success. “It is all about assembling a team of talented individuals, setting a standard, developing a vision and providing them with the resources that allow them to succeed. Our job as administrators is not just to find talent, but also give those individuals opportunities to succeed and continuously develop their talent. This strengthens the profession and continues to move it forward in a positive direction.”

Whether it is through canoe tug of war, challenge course programming or various other activities, Edwards hopes campus recreation will expand its role and continue to have a positive impact on health and wellness at the university. In fact, the Department of Campus Recreation recently joined forces with the Center for Community Health and Wellbeing on campus.

“They have combined us with the health center and health promotions and I see that as a great thing,” said Edwards. “We have an impact on health now, but I see that expanding and having a much broader vision of health and wellbeing as it is related to the entire Georgia Tech community.”

Emily Harbourne was a previous editor for Campus Rec Magazine.

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