Perpetual motion

Thousands of times a day, people do extraordinary—and ordinary—things with their bodies at Payne Whitney Gym.

Mark Alden Branch ’86 is executive editor of the Yale Alumni Magazine

In 1994, when Yale was still suffering from budget problems and the effects of years of deferred maintenance on its buildings, administrators floated the idea that Yale might be better off without Payne Whitney Gymnasium—the 16-level, 640,000-square-foot building that had served the university since 1932. Tearing the gym down, it was noted in this magazine, “would actually be less expensive than renovating the present structure.”

Happily for the fans of the improbable neogothic behemoth sometimes called the “Cathedral of Sweat,” Yale opted for renovation and expansion. A major addition, the Lanman Center, provided an indoor running track and four full basketball courts. A new squash center and fitness center were worked in, along with a varsity weight room. Today, the gym has a lot more to offer than it did 20 years ago. But it’s still as quirky as ever. Where else do gymnasts tumble beneath gothic rose windows?

Although some of us may have once thought of the gym as the province of varsity athletes, it has become a destination for students, visitors, faculty, and staff of all kinds in this fitness-conscious age. Between 1,700 and 2,000 check into the gym every day, which makes for about 500,000 check-ins per year (including 250,000 at the Israel Fitness Center, the PWG equivalent of your local Planet Fitness). They’re there to swim, to lift weights, to run a few miles on a treadmill, to play some pickup basketball, to participate in one of Yale’s 52 club sports, to drill with their ROTC units, to play intramurals for their residential colleges or schools, to work out in group exercise classes (175 each year), to play squash, pickleball, water polo, or table tennis, and to learn ballroom dancing, martial arts, or Indian dance. And much more.

Just walking the halls and watching it all is a bit exhausting. You may feel the same way when you see Bob Handelman’s photos—taken over three days last November—in the slide show above.

For Anthony “Duke” Diaz, who oversees the gym and its offerings as senior associate athletic director, all that activity is music to his ears. Diaz has his office on the fifth floor, down the hall from a suite of well-used exercise rooms. The gym is busy from six in the morning till eleven at night on weekdays, but things really get going in the late afternoon. “We work all day up here,” says Diaz, “and just about the time we’re getting tired out and ready to go home, you start hearing people shouting and running around. And you think ‘Yeah. This is what it’s all about.’ Maybe I should change my hours.”

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