James Henry thought he’d never see outstanding indoor track facilities at Michigan before his coaching career ended.
The former U-M athlete boasts 33 years of directing women’s track and field — including 212 Big Ten titles, 11 individual national championships and four national relay crowns. He figured to close his days out in the relatively dilapidated indoor facility on the main athletic campus.
He’d been told under one administration the old metal structure was getting a total remake, even approved by University Regents. Then Lucy pulled that football, promised something else, and he wasn’t buying it — at first.
Now he sits amid $145 million worth of new facilities at Michigan’s South Athletic Campus, spending what little time he’s not putting into his program pinching himself.
“It’s well beyond my expectations,” Henry marveled. “[Former U-M Athletics Director] David Brandon did an excellent job in telling me we were not going to get the digs we were planning to get out at the old track, and we were getting these digs.
“I thought it was just another administrative, political move to kick the can down the road. Who knew that it would be one of the best cans in the world.”
It’s all of that, with more than 500 student-athletes — more than half of all Michigan varsity performers — housed at the new facilities. From track & field, to lacrosse, to rowing and beyond, the powers that be in this world of Wolverines made very good use of the largesse from mega-donor Stephen M. Ross and others.
You can stroll into the track area and see what its inhabitants insist is simply the best indoor facility in the world. The hydraulic competition track at the push of a button elevates three to four feet on the ends, like a race track, allowing for faster times. It can be made flat again for practice, so it’s not too hard on runners in the day-to-day work.
A 300-meter practice track circles the exterior of the competition track, with a backstretch that loops under stands that can seat 2,000 — for competitions like this weekend’s Wolverine Invitational, all the way up to anticipated Big Ten and national championship events.
Fans can go watch lacrosse in a gleaming new stadium, while tucked into the performance and team center, 16 rowers at a time can hone their craft in twin rowing tanks, even when the ice is a foot thick outside. They can watch on video screens who is pulling smoothly and who needs a little oil.
Michigan toured media members through the place on Tuesday, and much of it is jaw-dropping.
Look this way, and there’s an underwater treadmill. Step into the enclosed glass casing, and it fills in water depth up to four feet, eight inches in 2.5 minutes. Work out, with cameras delivering to screens in front of you any gait imperfections. When you’re done, the tank drains in 90 seconds, and you’re on your way.
Look that way, and an anti-gravity treadmill offloads up to 90 percent of your weight, allowing for cardio work without the joint stress. One athlete appeared to be floating and flying while she ran.
Check out the weight room, treatment tables, medical offices, and nutrition station, and it’s a good bet Michigan will be able to turn the heads of countless potential Wolverines on recruiting trips.
The med rooms alone feature private space for IVs, sutures, casts, splints, traction if there’s any spinal injury, doctors’ offices, a secure medication room, ultrasound, EKG, X-rays, laser treatment, and on and on.
In short, former Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight would have been far better off getting hurt in U-M’s new lacrosse stadium than he would have on Purdue’s football field.
A host of Michigan athletes and coaches — like James Henry — are in awe of where they now call home.
“I thought that would be my resting place, in terms of retirement,” Henry said of the old indoor track. “Once that was pulled out from under me, I was shocked and dismayed, that here we go again. That was the third chance that we get to the one-inch line, we’re ready to score, and they turn the ball around and say you’ve got to go in that direction. That was very disappointing.”
Now, he says, it’s a whole new world.
“This is my track and field retirement home,” he said. “This is the best facility. I can now rest and reap the benefits. We had very good athletic programs in an inadequate facility, and now I’m anxious to see what we can do with the best facility in the country.”
(An extensive spread on the new facilities appears in the next issue of The Wolverine magazine, out the week of Jan. 22. Those interested in subscription information can call 800-421-7751).