Students, Community Make the Most of Mason’s Freedom Center Pools and Labs

By Buzz McClain

Five times a week, for up to eight hours at a time, 180 members of the Occoquan Swimming team train in the lanes of the 50-meter pool at the Freedom Aquatic and Fitness Center on Mason’s Prince William Campus. There, they practice their breaststroke and butterfly, working to improve their standings in the competitive Potomac Valley Swimming league.

The Woodbridge-based team, with 500 members, is just one of the several regional swim clubs that lease lanes at the 110,000-square-foot facility. Some 2,000 visitors a day, including Mason students and nonswimmers from the surrounding communities, use its fitness gear, ball courts, child care, and other amenities.

Ronald L. Carmichael, chief operating officer on Mason’s Prince William Campus, in front of the Freedom Aquatic & Fitness Center pool. Photo by Creative Services.

The numbers are not surprising. Since its opening in 1999—with funding and support from Prince William County, the City of Manassas, and Mason—the Freedom Center has become a pivotal and vital recreation facility to the area.

“Anything smaller and we wouldn’t be able to keep up with the business,” says Ronald L. Carmichael, Mason’s chief operating officer on the Prince William Campus. In 1999, he says, the facility drew 350,000 users; last year the number was 700,000, with more on the way as Mason opens its first graduate residence hall on the Prince William Campus in the coming weeks. “This will be their primary source of fitness,” Carmichael says.

In fact, he says, the pool in particular is so popular that it could lease another 10 lanes in a heartbeat if they were available. “We could run five times as many swim meets as we do, but that would affect members,” he says.

“The peak hours have pretty much been chock-a-block since the first day we opened the doors,” says Leslie G. Shinners, general manager of the facility since 2008. “And it’s been climbing ever since.”

The Freedom Aquatic & Fitness Center has an elevated indoor track. Photo by Creative Services.

The facility, which cost $17.3 million to build, operates on a $5 million a year budget, supported by a hybrid admission system of daily rates and annual memberships. There are 6,000 registered members who sign up for some 160  group fitness classes a week, swim in the leisure pool adjacent to the competitive pool, play basketball and racquet sports on top-flight courts, run laps on an elevated track, or lift weights in the 5,200-square-foot strength room. There are also business memberships, with employees of companies such as Lockheed Martin and Micron Technology taking advantage of employee wellness programs.

Almost 2,000 people a day use the Freedom Aquatic & Fitness Center on the Prince William Campus. Photo by Creative Services.

The center is also home to the Mason Center for Team and Organizational Learning (the EDGE), the research-based experiential learning and team-building facility. A preschool emphasizing healthy lifestyles and a short-term daycare center—Freedom Kid Kare—are on the premises and are very popular.

For Mason students, who represent about 10 percent of the membership and 5 percent of the visits (full-time Mason students are permitted unlimited visits), the facility also serves as a working classroom for those enrolled in Mason’s School of Recreation, Health, and Tourism (RHT). New to the center is RHT’s Run SMART Clinic, which offers an innovative 3-D motion analysis system for athletes. The clinic will open to the public in spring 2013.

“[The center] was always meant to be a laboratory,” says Shinners, who is also an adjunct professor teaching facilities management. “We’re not using the facility for Intercollegiate Athletics, so when the students come it’s not the peak time for the general community. When I teach, I tell my students they couldn’t be more fortunate. You’ve got this beautiful facility, it’s not crowded when they come, it’s got all the amenities a facility could offer, and we’re on this cozy, small campus. Where else would you get that opportunity?”

For others in the community, the pool, which is used by local high schools and other private swim clubs, is central.

“The Freedom Center is an extremely well-kept facility, and it has the capability of being used as a long-course or short-course pool,” says Jay Thorpe, head coach of  the Battlefield High School boys and girls swim teams. “The pool features electronic timing and a scoreboard making it ideal for hosting meets.”

Battlefield, says Thorpe, brings some 65 swimmers to the pool  for three hours of practice Monday through Thursday; meets are held on Friday nights. “I can tell you that the Freedom Center is a vital facility within Prince William County,” he says. “At least half of the high school programs in Prince William County practice at Freedom and the pool has been host to regional and state competitions. . . . The pool is an excellent value.”

Occoquan Swimming general manager and head coach Aaron M. Dean says, “Using the Freedom Center is our lifeblood for our swim team. Occoquan Swimming continues to use other facilities that were used prior to the opening of Freedom, but Freedom is an improvement in space and air quality over some of our other facilities.”

Dean says renting pool space is not cheap. “We pay more than $100,000 in pool rent a year just for the use of the Freedom Center. But we understand that this is what it takes to be able to use a pool for competitive training, so this is a fine value for being able to introduce the sport of competitive swimming to so many area kids.”

Tom Ugast, CEO of Nations’ Capital Swimming, which brings some 300 swimmers to the pool throughout the week, agrees. “The pool is a good value for our club,”he says. “We are not having to charge extraordinary fees for the swimmers to swim there. It allows us to charge a fair price to our swimmers to train to be competitive.  The price-to-value is fair.”

But more lanes are needed, and to that end, the good news is there are “active plans” for expansion, says Carmichael. Besides additional lanes, on the drawing board are designs for an ice rink, indoor tennis courts, and soccer fields.

To read more stories about Mason, check out the university’s News site.

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