Students are immersed in yellow-orange light, treadmills and Precor machines hum, and light rock plays quietly in the background. There is constant movement.
An older man, probably a professor emeritus, shifts from one weight machine to another. A girl with a blond ponytail starts a plank, holding it until she starts to shake from exertion. A student with a high school lacrosse shirt does another set of pull-ups, jumping up to the bars and then finishing his reps.
This is Stephen’s Fitness Center, the main gym on Princeton’s campus. On a campus where students typically congregate based on interest, the Fitness Center is perhaps the most universal gathering place. The gym hangs the banners of all of the Residential Colleges from its ceiling, a show of unity when there was barely significant division in the first place. Any student can use the fitness center and most do. Although the gym is primarily intended for non-athletes, it is not uncommon to see Varsity athletes as well as JV athletes training with other students.
Compare this to the rest of campus. You will not find many secular students spending a lot of time in the chapel, many scientists studying in Firestone, or many humanities majors in the E-Quad. The eating clubs split up students into narrow groups and you can’t get into many of them without the right passes or friends to put you on the guest list.
The gym never goes on pass and it has universal appeal. The forward facing gazes of runners, the grimaces of weight lifters, and the squinted eyes of rowers show that Princetonians care about the gym.
This should be somewhat surprising because Princeton students have so much else to care about. Students have to overcome enormous academic challenges just to make it to campus. Once here, many students find themselves even more challenged than they were before coming to Princeton. Despite focusing on intellectual success, many students see Princeton as an opportunity to pursue excellence in a different area – fitness.
This is, perhaps, the most endearing quality of the gym. When knowing your quintile makes you self-conscious about your position at Princeton, a trip to the gym can show that everyone is struggling. People want bigger muscles, more toned thighs, and more prominent abs. There is focus, determination, even desperation in people’s eyes. Despite this environment of intense striving, there is no objective ranking system. Some people are able to lift more or run longer, yes, but there is also always room for improvement.
It seems like part of the Princeton academic game can be trying to work hard without looking like you are working hard. Everyone admires grace under fire, but when people get deceptive about how hard they are working, it can create a negative atmosphere. The gym is free from this kind of deception. People are less concerned about their dress than elsewhere on campus and everyone is working as hard as they can. If someone isn’t giving it their all, it’s their loss. At the gym, everyone wants to get better; everyone isn’t where he or she would like to be.
There can be a dark side to this mentality. We all have seen people who are clearly overtraining–working themselves too hard and risking injury. The gym can also be a second home to people who have become to obsessed with their image, eating to little and exercising too much, risking their health and well-being. This dark side is not isolated to the gym, though. It emerges wherever people strive for excellence, including in Princeton’s academic environment, where too many students retreat into seclusion from the campus to focus on their grades.
The gym also isn’t totally free from sleight of hand. While everyone puts their best effort on display in the weight room, people are less open about the supplements they take when they get back to their rooms: creatine and nitric oxide, testosterone boosters and protein powder. Fad diets like carb loading are kept secret and people tend not to work with personal trainers during peak hours.
Although some students go overboard with their workouts or get just as competitive at the gym as in the classroom, for most of us more fitness is never a bad thing. It encourages a positive mood, it promotes health, and healthy self-regard. We don’t have to try to be better than our peers, we can just try to be stronger than we were last week, last semester, last year.
At the gym we all are all together in trying to be our best selves, all working towards a common purpose on different paths. The false barriers that we try to erect keep us apart fall away and our fundamental similarity becomes more apparent. Perhaps at the gym we can find a model for what the rest of Princeton should be like.