It’s been dubbed the “Cathedral of Sport,” with its Gothic tower soaring characteristically above the New Haven skyline. Payne Whitney Gymnasium is to athletics what Sterling Memorial Library is to books.
In the entrance foyer, there is the cool of dark green marble and an eerie silence. But around each corner and down every long hallway lies frantic activity — the squeaking of basketball shoes on hardwood floors, the pounding of feet in hidden stairwells and the whirring of the fan of a rowing erg. And maniacally participating in these activities are students, faculty and members of the greater New Haven community of every size, shape and persuasion. A veritable potpourri of human form.
On the fourth floor, the Ace Israel Fitness Center never blinks a shameful eye at any of its inhabitants. But then again, the wall mirrors cannot understand the odd sight they reflect. On one hand, there are people training for the usual reasons. Some train for their health. Some train with the goal of enhancing their in-season performance.
Some former varsity athletes, who have moved on from their sport, can’t let go of their bulky chest or chiseled abs. Finally, some members of the Yale community want an escape, need a little time to take their mind off schoolwork or just want to work up a good sweat.
The intentions of some others are a little less easy to pin down, like those who wear — for the lack of a better word — interesting exercise clothes. Here, I cite the man who at some point decided that it was all right for him to wear tank tops that expose his nipples to every passerby.
Then you have the people who wear hats. Besides being impolite according to proper etiquette, I just don’t see the need for a hat in the gym. There’s no sun, and it looks completely out of place. But no one will ever tell you to take your hat off in the gym, nor should they.
Moreover, there are people doing exercises outside the realm of what seems obviously beneficial or necessary. For example, just a few weeks ago, I saw a man slowly and methodically tossing a 2.5 pound yellow, rubber medicine ball against the wall. With a tortured look on his face, he would then catch it, rotate his hips and repeat. Fundamentally, I understand the point of the exercise. But there are so many other ways to work your lower back and obliques. This seems tantamount to banging your head on the wall for a neck workout. But, if that’s what you want to do, who am I to tell you otherwise?
Walking down Lake Place on a random weeknight, you can feel the commotion of the Lanman Center. With bodies moving back and forth up the court, intramural basketball is a heated affair. Some of the games even boast a fairly high quality of play, and the competition is always fierce.
At the same time on the fifth floor, tucked away in a corner, the commotion of a basketball game is replaced by the metronomic rhythm of an IM ping-pong match. This is a more subdued crowd, dripping far less sweat. But there is still competition aplenty.
Right next door, a group of graduate students have gathered to play a game of volleyball. They are mostly non-Americans, but they have found a common interest in this hideaway. One still dons a pair of khakis and a button-down shirt. He appears to have rushed from a section he was teaching or a meeting with a professor. The quality of play here is better than expected. But there is no effort to keep score. And across the hall, people are practicing their hip-hop dancing — a progressive alternative to running on a treadmill.
Upstairs, a blue jigsaw puzzle mat that just hours earlier provided padding for a Club Wrestling practice now cushions a tiptoeing group of only five or six. They are practicing their waltz with the lights dimmed. No one knows they are practicing. And if they ever compete, it is likely that no one will be able to appreciate their preparation. But if a team waltzes on the sixth floor of Payne Whitney and no one sees it, they are still practicing and still enjoying themselves.
So, I repeat: Payne Whitney is to athletics what Sterling Memorial is to books. It’s a place to hide, a place to meet others, a place to enjoy every different sport you can imagine.
A beautiful, state of the art facility, Payne Whitney is not. But there is something special about walking into a gym with as much architectural cachet as any building on campus and climbing up stairs that have been worn down by those who came before you.
Yale athletics is about being part of a great tradition. Teams may win Ivy League or National Championships, but what must make playing for Yale special is the sense that you are a part of one of the oldest athletic programs in the country. Whether you are the 130th Captain of the Yale Football team or another student looking for a study break, Payne Whitney embodies the Yale tradition. And each time you enter her doors, you can’t help but feel it.
Nicholas Thorne is a junior in Pierson College. His column usually appears on Wednesdays.