GCU reaches the pinnacle of recreation options

Students enjoyed a hike on a sunny day in January to the top of Piestewa Peak, which gave them a great view of downtown Phoenix.

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the February issue of GCU Magazine, which can be read digitally here, and to see more  images by photographer Ralph Freso, here's a slideshow

Story by Lana Sweeten-Shults
Contributing: Mike Kilen, Rick Vacek
Photos by Ralph Freso

It’s 5 p.m. – go time for recreation at Grand Canyon University.

Hugged by Phoenix’s enviable 70-degree winter weather, sophomore sports management major Zeke Shull plants himself on Grove Field, a gaggle of soccer balls peppered
around him.

He and sophomore business management major Deric Hall drive ball after ball into the net as they prepare for men’s club soccer tryouts in a few weeks.

Shull often decompresses at Grove Field, kicking around a soccer ball with friends, or working out at the nearby Lopes Performance Center and adjacent track.

Students put the exercise equipment to good use at the Lopes Performance Center’s Student Fitness Center. The facility houses $500,000 of equipment.

“You can walk right out of your dorm and be on a soccer field or walk two minutes and be at a gym. There are so many gyms around,” said Shull.

Hall loves how the campus’ recreation spaces are incorporated seamlessly into student living spaces for general fitness or, if they crave competition, intramurals and club sports.

“It kind of invites exercise,” he said.

It’s what Campus Recreation Director Matt Lamb loves to hear.

“Obviously, what we want to do is to provide as many outlets as possible for our students to live a healthy, active lifestyle. It helps them mentally, physically — all those good things,” Lamb said. “It just helps them have a better experience while they’re going to school here. The more students are involved in these kinds of healthy activities, the better they typically do.

“So that’s the goal for us, just to provide as many platforms as possible.”

And GCU doesn’t lack recreation platforms.

The Lopes Performance Center offers a variety of workout options, in particular the second-floor Student Fitness Center.

The campus’ seventh fitness facility debuted in January at the Verde Apartments, joining four other residence hall fitness facilities. Many students who want to work out only need to step out of their room and venture down a few floors.

Or they can jaunt to the campus’ most highly attended fitness center, the 65,000-plus-square-foot Lopes Performance Center. While it’s the primary strength and conditioning facility for student-athletes, it’s also where the general student population can lift weights, work out on $500,000 of equipment or play a game on one of three multipurpose courts.

From dinnertime to bedtime most days, the fitness centers are a hustle-bustle, busy bee hive of activity so packed it’s hard to get a spot on an elliptical trainer or stair-climber. 

“If you don’t come here at night, you don’t see the campus in the same way you see it when you’re walking around during the day,” Lamb said.

Fitness Program Coordinator Kayla Hartson certainly sees it. She oversees classes taught by 15 student fitness instructors – everything from yoga to Zumba.

“It gets so busy after 5 p.m.,” she said. “I try to make this program the thing students look forward to going to in their day … and it kind of becomes the favorite part of their week.”

Student instructors lead fitness classes.

Hartson wants to counter numerous studies about the trend of weight gain among college students, such as a 2021 study by University of Georgia researchers that found that freshmen gain an average of three pounds their first semester and about eight pounds over the academic year.

For fall 2021, Hartson said 1,032 unique participants joined the fitness program, which includes not just classes but events such as outdoor sunrise yoga.

“That was huge. That was exciting,” Hartson said of those participation numbers at GCU, which also happens to be a gold status Exercise is Medicine campus.

When students visit the Canyon Health and Wellness Clinic, they can check a box to request more extensive health assessments. That gets them a referral to the Health Information and Programming Clinic, where exercise science students take measurements students wouldn’t routinely get at a normal doctor’s visit, such as conducting a VO2 max test, considered the best indicator of cardiovascular fitness.

For students to have access to such assessments is unheard of.

GCU’s Dr. Zach Zeigler (center) helps assess a students’ fitness at the Health Information and Programming Clinic. Exercise science students, who take the measurements, then provide exercise advice.

“The equipment we use to test them, for most universities, it’s just research equipment. If a student comes in and says, ‘Oh, I’d like to get this tested,’ either they’d say no or would charge you,” said Dr. Zach Zeigler, GCU’s Exercise is Medicine on Campus faculty advisor. “But it’s free to any student or faculty to come in and have these assessments done, and then we provide some exercise advice.”

Students also have access to nutrition advice from registered dietitian Emily Orvos at the Canyon Health and Wellness Clinic. Her office has worked with GCU Dining/Sodexo to create the Lopes Training Table and to point students to healthy options at the campus’ restaurants.

“I’m not familiar with a lot of college campuses that have a dietitian students can go see,” said Orvos, who does a segment on the GCU Dining Instagram called #dishingwiththedietitian to show students nutritious lunch choices. “It’s free to see me, and I’m accessible, which is nice, because dietitians aren’t always super accessible.”

Besides the fitness centers, classes, exercise and nutrition counseling, students are about to have access to a fifth pool, this one at The Rivers complex. It will join Diamondback Pool as the second campus location to give students access to lap swimming.

More students played sand volleyball last fall than any other intramural sport except flag football.

The seven courts at GCU Beach Volleyball Stadium also are a popular destination, especially for intramurals. The fall semester set a record for intramural participation, and the number of students who played sand volleyball ranked behind only flag football.

Flag football was so popular in its return from COVID hiatus that students clamored for it to be added to the spring semester schedule for the first time. Lamb and his staff complied.

“I tell them all the time, ‘We need to find out what the students want to do,’” Lamb said. “If they want to do it again, great, that’s fine.”

Similarly, the number of athletes playing club sports has skyrocketed. Dan Nichols, Director of Club Sports, expected a 50% rise this year; instead, it’s more than 100%.

Club Sports, which includes bowling, experienced a more than 100% rise in participation.

“It’s a snowball that gets bigger and bigger. As it keeps rolling, it gets larger on its own,” he said. “It’s getting more well known as being one of the top programs in the U.S. if not the top. If students are thinking about club sports, they’re probably thinking about Grand Canyon University.”

Students aren’t only active on campus. They’re lured to the vast playground of mountains, deserts, canyons, lakes and rivers that make Arizona such an attractive place to attend college.

After Outdoor Recreation Manager Chad Schlundt joined GCU in 2015, the program took off so fast that two years later it won its Outdoor Nation Campus Challenge division by having the highest outdoor activity participation over a four-week span.

The GCU Outdoor Recreation program more than doubled the total participation for its adventure trips from 733 in 2015-16 to 1,889 in 2019-20, before COVID hit. After more than 900 students joined trips in the first semester of this year, the program hopes to exceed that this spring.

“We hope to get them in God’s creation and challenge them physically and mentally,” Schlundt said of the 102 trips scheduled for this year within a 500-mile radius of Phoenix. “We want to love God and all the people who come on trips.”

Student leaders plan trips and go through extensive training to be outdoor guides.

Schlundt says it’s the students who have led the charge since he arrived, especially the first student leaders, who plan the trips and go through extensive safety training for outdoor guides.

“Their leadership style was so contagious and helped create this excitement and a truly authentic community,” he said. “When people come on a trip, they didn’t feel like they were coming for a random hike and leave that hike without a connection with somebody. Those students were able to build rapport with participants and turn that into friendships.

“I think that was the biggest propellant, and that snowball kept building year after year.”

Trips fill up fast on myrec.gcu.edu, but costs are kept low because the program uses University vehicles for transportation.

Students can check out equipment at the campus outlet, Base Camp, where business increased more than three-fold in the two years before COVID.

Base Camp gear technician Rebecca Thiessen (left) explains the features of one of the center’s sleeping bags to Chase Barnett and Emma Sawatsky.

And even when limited by the pandemic, students found a way to hone their outdoor skills on campus – visits to the climbing wall at the Canyon Activity Center increased 40% from 2019-20 to 2020-21.

Adventure trips include everything from snow skiing in Flagstaff to paddling the Colorado River through Black Canyon, from climbing in the Superstition Mountains to hiking the Utah canyons.  The rare wonder of witnessing God’s creation, such as the majesty of Havasu Falls near the Grand Canyon, has led to quiet moments of awe. But they might experience that same wonder in a nearby low intensity camping trip to Prescott.

“It’s not trip location that makes the trip, it’s the group that makes the trip,” Schlundt said.

Immersed in the wild, the group grows together physically, mentally and spiritually.

They pray on mountaintops, encourage one another up tough inclines and offer hands through scary spots on exposed cliffs.

“For a lot of them, it’s mental health,” he said, noting that one student who struggled with depression said the program totally changed his outlook on college and even on life.

Back on campus, students know that everything is right there for the taking – and doing.

“There are just so many opportunities, no matter where you’re living on campus,” said sophomore elementary education major Molly Flynn, who loves to dance at the LPC’s The Sanctuary studio, though on this day she headed to Papago Fitness Center with friends.

Students play intramural pickleball in the Canyon Activity Center.

“It’s not just like, oh, you have to stick to cardio, you have to stick to weights. You can do kayaking, lifting. There are all these different things you can do.”

As Papago Fitness Center prepared to close at 5:30 p.m. for cleaning, Flynn and her friends were unfazed.

“The CAC?” suggested junior business major Esther Mitchell as the group made its way to the Canyon Activity Center, bustling with students churning out anchor grinds and 180s at the center’s outdoor skate park, complete with newly installed ramps.

Inside the CAC, the squeaks of athletic shoes on the floor created a symphony as students played multiple games of basketball and volleyball.

The behemoth 130,574-square-foot athletic facility and social hub houses, in addition to the climbing wall, 10 basketball courts (with room for 13 volleyball courts), pickleball and badminton lines, netting. around the courts for indoor soccer, and a weight room, along with the skate park and roller hockey rink outside.

Lamb said the CAC came about because the University’s intramural and club sports programs were growing so rapidly that “there just wasn’t enough space to keep up.”

The LPC’s three multipurpose courts at the time just wouldn’t do. Registration for various programs had to be capped, which limited how many students could participate. The only way to stay ahead of that growth was to build the CAC.

Club Sports offers students the opportunity to compete against other college teams, and the basketball teams play their home games in the spacious Canyon Activity Center.

But, Lamb added, “We also wanted to make sure there was space for students to use that wasn’t programmed, where they can just come and go as they please and use some of the space by not being part of a club or an organization – just on their own.”

And students are definitely using those spaces. Lamb said 19,089 unique visitors used the recreation facilities in fall 2021 alone. “It was actually quite astonishing,” he said of the numbers. “As you can see, that shows our students are using these facilities and really value them,” especially after COVID-19 limited their use.

“Everyone jumped back in with little hesitation.”

Everyone, including freshman nursing student A.J. Hotzfield, who spent his Friday night at the skate park.

“To our knowledge, we’re the only university to have something like that,” Lamb said of the facility, created because the University saw it as something students were passionate about. “We can’t find any research or anything that shows that anyone has a designated skate park on campus, so that’s been pretty cool.”

One of the popular features at the Canyon Activity Center is the rock climbing wall.

Hotzfield hits the CAC for rock climbing, skateboarding, the GCU Mixed Martial Arts Club and just hanging out with friends.

A lot of what these recreation facilities and activities are about is not just keeping students active but making sure they’re engaged. Social programming is planned around these facilities, such as the annual “Walloween” event for Halloween at the climbing wall.

Hartson said, “I really try to encourage people not just to come for the workout but come to get to know other students and meet people and find that fitness community on campus just to help the student experience.”

All the recreation and athletic facilities? All the sports? It played a major role in Hotzfield choosing GCU. “I heard about all the activities and all the different things that go on at GCU within Club Sports and intramurals,” and that was it for him.

Freshman sports and entertainment management major Logan Hamilton echoed Hotzfield’s sentiments as he laced his shoes for a basketball game with friends at the CAC: “It’s such an active campus. It’s one of the main reasons I came here. They kind of have everything you want.”

Senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901. Senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764. Senior Manager of Internal Communications Rick Vacek can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-8203.


Related content:

GCU Today: GCU Base Camp equips students, staff for outdoors

GCU Today: Campus Recreation event shows Lopes play hard

GCU Today: Just like that, Canyon Activity Center is a big hit


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