Students at Sparks Fitness Center help people meet their health, fitness goals

by Erin Dahl,

Don Negri squats against the wall, weights clasped in his outstretched arms. His back hurts, his legs ache and he suppresses the urge to yell obscenities at his trainer. Instead, the economics professor holds his position for three more seconds and collapses to the floor.

  • Wellness program at Sparks
  • Wellness program at Sparks
  • Wellness program at Sparks
  • Wellness program at Sparks
  • Wellness program at Sparks
  • Wellness program at Sparks
  • Wellness program at Sparks
  • Wellness program at Sparks

As a reward, Caden Crowston ’18 gives Negri a congratulatory fist bump.

“Except for my wife, very few people tell me what to do,” says Negri, already following Crowston to a new spot in Sparks Athletic Center. “I trust Caden’s expertise and training. He’s here to help me lose weight and get stronger, so why not listen to what he has to say?”

Like other faculty, students and staff, Negri rediscovered Sparks this year through a slew of new — and affordable — offerings. Three trainers and a nutritionist (all Willamette students certified by the American Council for Sports Medicine) help clients meet their health goals, while an array of cooking and fitness classes provide extra incentive to fine-tune diets and get moving. 

“This is a student-run movement,” says Tom Merkle ’16, the Sparks fitness center coordinator. “We’re the ones mainly benefiting from the fitness center, so it makes sense for us to take responsibility for how it’s run.”

Grass-roots Movement

When Willamette began renovating Sparks in 2013, Bryan Schmidt, director of Campus Recreation, saw an opportunity.

The renovation called for an expanded fitness center and sports medicine center, a climbing wall and more than 35 pieces of new cardio equipment, as well as new and renovated multipurpose rooms and activity spaces.

Yet Schmidt knew other changes were needed. Over the years, people had told him they felt lost and uncomfortable in Sparks, or they were bored with their workouts.

“People wanted much more than what they were getting,” he says. “They needed programming, resources and a welcoming environment.”

So in spring 2014, Schmidt hired a student wellness coordinator to develop offerings focused on nutrition, fitness and rest. Several months later, management of Sparks transitioned from Athletics to Campus Recreation, and Schmidt hired two new students to manage fitness center programming and operations.

When classes began last fall, the newly renovated center unveiled its latest, programmatic facelift.

“So much has happened in one semester,” Schmidt says. “We’re working to make Sparks a much more active, engaged space.”

New Offerings

As well as individual consultations, the nutritionist offers periodic cooking classes. In February, students learned how to makeover classic dorm food to increase the nutritional quality (and the yum factor).

Instead of plain ramen noodles, they enjoyed an upscale version with chicken-miso stock, spinach, corn, green onions and soft-boiled eggs. They upgraded mac-and-cheese with smoked gouda, roasted brussels sprouts and caramelized onion, and transformed vanilla pudding with the addition of fresh strawberries and local apples.

The fitness trainers provide guidance and advice via individual and group sessions. Prices range from $6 to $10 per person, and proceeds directly fund the trainers’ wages.

Yoga, strength training, aerobics and other fitness classes are now available, as well as new group classes — many taught by athletic coaches. Centered on sports, these offerings feature everything from baseball and soccer to volleyball and basketball. A six-week Couch to 5K training program was also added, which cumulates in an actual race.

Each of these offerings are expected to continue every semester, with potential additions such as self-defense classes, meditation sessions and potential projects in collaboration with the Exercise Science Department.

“When you look at everything, it’s 1,000 percent different than a year ago,” Schmidt says. “Before, we just had the space. Now, we’re doing all sorts of different things within that space.”

Negri, for one, is grateful for the improvements — especially the addition of personal trainers.

For several years, he played racquetball at least twice a week on campus. But when the courts were demolished to expand the fitness center, he knew he needed a new exercise routine.

Now he works on his strength, flexibility and endurance with Crowston twice a week — all for the low price of $6 an hour.

“Caden gets me here, organizes my workouts and encourages me to work hard,” Negri says. “I’m 62 years old, and even this old dog can learn new tricks.”

For more information about the offerings available at Sparks, check out the Wellness Program's website.

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