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October 9, 2012
By John Trent
The list is pretty impressive - impressive that the colleges and universities that are listed in a recent Top 25 ranking by Outside Magazine are all located in pretty, even picturesque, spots.
The institutions of higher learning listed in Outside's Top 25 "Outside Universities" run the gamut from the bucolic "Farm"-like setting of Stanford University to the deep gorges and waterfalls that instill Cornell University with a shimmering glow, to the trade winds and blue surf of Hawaii, Manoa to the abundant sunshine, the silvery rills of a downtown river and the mountain setting of a place called the University of Nevada, Reno.
The University checked in at No. 23 in Outside's Top 25 rankings that were released in August.
Outside's editors noted that the rankings were based on a number of key criteria, most notably, "adventure, grit, sweat, a worthy struggle, tested endurance, goosebump-inducing views, wide-open skies, maybe some roiling water."
Or, put another way by Outside writer Avital Andrews, "We set out to examine which schools are best suited ... For those of you who can only get rebooted with a shock to the system of air so fresh that it cuts to the core of you, and hauls so long that a blister ripping open signifies satisfaction well had."
Recently, Jim Fitzsimmons, director of campus recreation and wellness, pondered why the University ranked so high in Outside's rankings.
(Outside's always enterprising editors rolled out their outdoor abacus for the rankings, and developed a pretty comprehensive and sophisticated methodology. The editors included such criteria as breadth of outdoor-adventure recreation program as determined by number of types of activities offered; affordability of the average outdoor-adventure trip/wilderness outing offered by a school's recreation center; proximity of campus to state or national parks; days of sunshine per year; number of a school's outdoor-adventure-oriented sports clubs/teams; existence and quality of summer camp/family recreation program for alumni; academic courses that require outdoor fieldwork; availability and cost of outdoor-recreation available for renting or borrowing on campus; number and cost of certification programs or guide schools on campus; availability of on-campus training facilities and resources. When all the computational dust had finally settled, and the spreadsheets of muscle, sinew and adrenaline were finalized, UC-Berkeley was ranked No. 1.)
Fitzsimmons knows a thing or two about making recreation and wellness a way of life, and a way for a campus to become better connected.
In addition to being one of the world's top CrossFit competitors - Fitzsimmons recently placed sixth at the 2012 Reebok CrossFit Games - Fitzsimmons regularly partakes in the riches northern Nevada and the Sierra offer the outdoor enthusiast. He's a regular mountain biker, rock climber and kayaker, and encourages his students to do the same.
Fitzsimmons said student recreation centers are no longer a place for solitary activity. They've become, in a very real sense, one of the keys to developing a sense of community on a college campus.
"Student recreation centers exert a tremendous influence on a student's decision to attend a university, and perhaps just as importantly, to stay at the university they choose to attend," Fitzsimmons said. "They visit a campus, and their decision is often an emotional decision - 'Did I like the campus, the people there, and where I'm going to live?'
"And a big piece is the place that recreation has on a campus."
Fitzsimmons, who has done his graduate work in studying campus recreation trends throughout the country, said there are numerous examples of institutions that made an investment in campus recreation. They're seeing the benefits in enrollments that have not only increased, but have shown improved retention rates. According to some national figures, Fitzsimmons said, as many as 30 percent of all students say that a campus recreation center plays a role in their final determination of where they attend college.
"It's a huge recruitment and a massive retention piece," Fitzsimmons said.
A recent visit to Fitzsimmons' office on the second floor of the Lombardi Recreation Center showed why.
It was a late afternoon in September. Lombardi's scrubbed hallways were packed with students, some waiting to attend health or physiology or recreation classes, others, towels in hand and wearing T-shirts and shorts, hustling to a fitness class. Still others, stub-nosed climbing shoes dangling off their backpacks, were headed to the Lombardi's state-of-the-art climbing wall.
As Fitzsimmons talked in his office, a nearby picture window opened to the surrounding scenery. Peavine Mountain and its aspens with leaves that hang like golden ornamental lanterns at this time of year loomed tall to the north. Running south in a rugged line of jagged pink and brown outcroppings, like a set piece from a John Wayne movie, the Pah Rah and Virginia Ranges could be seen just over Fitzsimmons' shoulders.
Two stories below, in the afternoon heat, dozens of students ran laps on the pavement around Lombardi, before heading up a long hill to the Medical School. Then, heeding Lombardi's homing call, they returned for more laps, giving one of the campus' busiest buildings even more of an energized, Grand Central Recreation Station feel.
The students never seemed to tire, even in the heat, moving in contented groups of twos and threes, smiling and laughing as they ran.
Fitzsimmons, who himself "coaches" two classes of CrossFit per week, said he's often amazed by how busy Lombardi gets. CrossFit, by the way, has quickly become one of the University's national recreation calling cards. The University is home to the first and largest university affiliate CrossFit program in the country.
"I'll come in here, and it's going crazy," Fitzsimmons said, smiling, and then adding that the building sees about 700,000 student visitors in a year "strictly for recreational use." Justifiably proud of the expert instructors he has been able to recruit, Fitzsimmons noted that for the center's Yoga, Pilates and CrossFit and Triathlon classes, "we have some of the top people in these fitness disciplines teaching these courses."
Fitzsimmons said he hopes to bring even more an "eco-bent" to what the center is already doing. In years past, recreation students have learned the intricacies of outdoor professions such as whitewater guiding, including understanding how such activities can become not only a way of life, but a career.
The two - the outdoors and campus recreation - go hand-in-hand, Fitzsimmons said.
"It's simple, really," Fitzsimmons said. "If I take you out and we go fly-fishing together on the Truckee River, the odds are good that you'll become more passionate about the ecology and the life of the resource. That's why we've had this eco kind of bent to what we do."
As the running class continued its spirited workout two floors below on a hot, sunny and nevertheless glorious fall afternoon in Reno, you had to wonder if somehow Outside got its rankings wrong.
The University was only ranked No. 23?