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"As soon as people see a TV, they're gonna just cry they'll be so happy."

 

The Cooley Center Gets into Shape

A major renovation transforms Hopkins' 20-year-old athletic center.


Basketball may still be his favorite sport, but these days John W. Johnson spends more time at the Cooley Center on the cardiovascular equipment. "There's a reason there are no 40-year-olds playing professional basketball," he says.
There is fashion in physical fitness, just like in food or skirt lengths. When the Denton A. Cooley Recreation Center opened in 1981, racquetball was king. "You could find a racquetball court off every exit of the beltway," says Bob Rineer, director of operations for facilities at the JHU School of Medicine. Hopkins' athletic center opened on Friday, March 13, of that year, touting four racquetball courts, two squash courts, an elevated jogging track and a full-size basketball court, per the specific instructions of heart surgeon Denton Cooley, a 1944 Hopkins medical school graduate and the major donor for the $2.6 million building.

There also were two, lone exercise rooms, where aerobics, no doubt, was choreographed to the strains of Olivia Newton-John's "Physical," and Dolly Parton's "9 to 5."

This month, the athletic center will unveil the results of a major reconfiguration, one that has quashed most of the courts and replaced them with updated exercise studios, locker rooms, and walls and walls of mirrors.

"You can see people's excitement even before we move in," says Darryl Waldon, director of the Cooley Center. "They are getting what they've always dreamed of having this close to work."

Two years ago, the School of Medicine took a hard look at the facility and decided not only to refurbish it, but to out-source its management as well. MidAtlantic Corporate Health, which operates fitness centers for corporations, government agencies, housing communities and universities in 30 states, was brought on board to run the center more like a business.

The results of that decision were concrete and quick. After surveying Cooley members, MidAtlantic began adding new equipment and offering more classes, even if it meant jury-rigging the existing space to squeeze everything in. Paid membership leapt from 600 to 1,600 in two years. Meanwhile, MidAtlantic also took charge of how the facility should be renovated and fitted out. Construction began in June.

Key to the new design is the dismantling of the racquetball and squash courts (only two racquetball courts will be preserved). The high-walled spaces will, in essence, be cut in half horizontally and made into a half-dozen exercise studios. One studio will be reserved for activities like spinning classes, yoga and Pilates, a yoga-like exercise that is all the rage in Hollywood and for which the demand at Hopkins is "huge, huge," according to Waldon.

The cardiovascular training area will have satellite-fed TVs lined up along the walls. "As soon as people see a TV," Waldon says, pausing to laugh, "they're gonna just cry they'll be so happy." And everywhere there will be mirrors, making the center look "bright and shiny and huge."

This is especially meaningful to the regulars who lift weights, says Waldon.

"The people who use this area don't care if we have beautiful ceilings or pictures on the wall," he says. "They want a functional area where they can see themselves and see their muscles."

Johns Hopkins Medicine Dean and CEO Edward Miller, who frequented the Cooley Center when he first arrived at Hopkins in 1994 but shifted to a more private venue in recent years to lift weights and walk the treadmill, thinks the $800,000 price-tag for the renovations has been well spent.

He doesn't go so far as to classify the facility as a recruitment tool, although students from the schools of Medicine and Public Health can use the center for free and represent some 60 percent of the total membership. Instead, the facelift "fits in with a lot of things we're trying to do to make this a nicer place to come to work," he says, like the new day care center and a better variety of eating places. "We want to make it easier for people to exercise, and we're trying to expand their options."

Eventually, the rest of the building, including the basketball court and track, also will be renovated, says Rineer. But for now, the goal at Cooley is to change the perception of the facility. Rineer wants to double the paid membership in another two years.

That shouldn't be hard to do, given the facelift, the reasonable rates (membership is $25 a month and can be deducted from your paycheck) and the convenience of exercising at Cooley. A grand re-opening will be held the week of Oct. 14, when employees on Hopkins' East Baltimore campus can try out the center for free. Check out www.cooleycenter.com for more information.

- MEM

Cooley: Where Everybody Knows Your (first) Name

To John W. Johnson, the Cooley Center is more than a place to work out. It's where he makes contacts. He got his current job by networking there, and has since recruited at least one person he met there. For him, a big part of Cooley's appeal is the "melting pot" atmosphere.

"You never know if the person riding the bike next to you is going to perform surgery on your sister," says Johnson, systems administrator and Eclipsys project leader at the JHM Center for Information Services.

Eight years ago, Johnson lived not far from Hopkins, worked at then-Maryland National Bank and volunteered for Hopkins' Pastoral Care Service. He was introduced to the Cooley Center by a patient he knew, then was allowed to join because of his volunteer work.

His favorite exercise was playing pick-up games of basketball, and he got to know the regular crowd, including a guy named Chip. When his bank job was phased out, the other guys encouraged him to give his resume to Chip. "He's big here," someone told him.

As Johnson was sent on interview after interview, he would inevitably hear, "So, you know Chip." It was a couple weeks before Johnson ran into Chip on the court again, and asked him, "Who are you, anyway?" He was Richard "Chip" Davis, Ph.D., Hopkins outpatient administrator. Johnson got the job and has had several promotions since.

In Johnson's experience, this was not a fluke. He doesn't remember how long he played pick up with "Ed" before he recognized a picture in Dome of the chief of trauma surgery, Ed Cornwell. A similar thing happened with "Peter," who Johnson saw regularly on the track. Later, while introducing Eclipsys on the Surgical Intensive Care Unit, Johnson spied "Peter" Pronovost, critical care medicine specialist, wearing a long white coat.

"I like it there a lot," says Johnson, who tries to lift weights and use the cardiovascular equipment at least three times a week. "It's convenient at lunch time or after work, the atmosphere is non-competitive, the staff is great and there's a good mix of people. At Cooley, everybody sweats the same."

 

 

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