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Construction on Weiss Pavillion is set to wrap up on the eve of Penn Relays. With merchandise lining the unfinished walls, several construction workers assured me they would be completely finished as thousands descend on Franklin Field for the annual Penn Relays. Across the way, a tent is constructed over Lott Courts, reportedly for a Nike tent. Credit: Pete Lodato

In the basement of the historic Franklin Field — literally, under the radar — Penn Athletics has been brewing up quite a storm unbeknownst to much of the non-varsity portion of the student body.

While students have been carrying on with their daily routines, members of the 31 recognized Penn sports teams have been conditioning their bodies in the newly finished $26.7 million Weiss Pavilion fitness center that, according to strength and conditioning coordinator Jim Steel, rivals any collegiate training facility in the nation.

The new facility, which began hosting athletes in late June, is just one component of the Penn Connects project — the University’s 30-year plan for campus development and eastward expansion — and affirms the school’s commitment to making athletics a central feature of the Penn community.

“I’ve had many students say to me, and many coaches say to me, that [the new facilities] has helped them decide to come to Penn,” Penn President Amy Gutmann said.

Gutmann added that students’ reactions to the new athletic facilities have been similar to the way faculty praise the academic buildings planned for Penn Connects — such as the Krishna P. Singh Center for Nanotechnology, which is slated to begin construction later this year.

The 18,000 square foot varsity training room, which is highlighted by 30 weightlifting racks custom made for Penn, two running tracks and a kickboxing room with 18 heavy bags, represents a decided upgrade from old training facilities.

In previous years, athletes worked out in a smaller room within Franklin Field — which has since been converted into an additional therapy room — with less advanced equipment and far less space.

According to Steel, who played a large role in designing the facility and selecting the equipment, Weiss Pavilion will play a critical role in physically preparing athletes and preventing injuries, which could go a long way toward making teams competitive throughout the entire season.

In the new facility, the Athletics Department has made a large investment in preserving Penn’s reputation for athletics within the Ivy League.

“It is a tremendous statement to people, recruits, regular students, alumni, about the importance of athletics and recreation. It’s symbolic as much as it is functional,” said athletic director Steve Bilsky.

“I think athletics is like a porch to your university. It’s not the most important thing you do, but it might be the first thing you see. You come in through the porch, and if it’s good, you have a good feel about the school,” he added.

If Franklin Field’s facade got a makeover this year, the porch’s rehabilitation remains ongoing.

Penn also unveiled the Fox Fitness Center — a new gym open to the entire Penn community — located on the upper levels of Weiss Pavilion. In addition, Bilsky said that the highly touted Penn Park just east of Weiss Pavillion is on schedule for completion for the Fall 2011 semester.

As new facilities open on the oft-forgotten east end of campus, the challenge will be to get students — most of whom live at least a half mile west of Franklin Field — to trek towards the Schuylkill and take advantage of what is, or will be, theirs.

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