History of Recreational Sports Wall in the hallway at Bakke Recreation & Wellbeing Center.

Honoring the History of Recreation & Wellbeing

The history of recreational sports on campus is one of creating community and connections. Our history can be told through our buildings and programs, but it is best told through the stories of the people that made real change happen. These individuals advocated for accessible spaces, forged connections throughout the campus community, evolved our facilities, and helped grow Recreation & Wellbeing to what it is today. We celebrate this with our “Honoring the History of Recreation & Wellbeing” installation which can be found in the Bakke Recreation & Wellbeing Center on the first floor hallway by Courts 3 and 4.


Access here to learn more and share your own experiences as an Active Badger.



The University of Wisconsin–Madison occupies ancestral Ho-Chunk land, a place their nation has called Teejop (day-JOPE) since time immemorial. UW-Madison respects the inherent sovereignty of the Ho-Chunk Nation and other First Nations of Wisconsin.

As we move forward in our work with holistic wellbeing, we acknowledge the foundation on which we build our work on was established by the Indigenous people of Wisconsin. Activities our campus community loves such as lacrosse, archery, field hockey, and even wrestling were first enjoyed by indigenous peoples, as well as many wellbeing practices such as massage, meditation, and localized food sourcing.

With the opening of the Bakke Recreation & Wellbeing Center on ancestral lands and its close proximity to burial grounds and effigy mounds to the north, we wanted to honor this relationship and history with a space to reflect and educate. In conjunction with representatives and artists of the Ho-Chunk and First Nations and generous funding from the Class of 1971, Recreation and Wellbeing commissioned a sculpture representing the twelve clans of the Ho-Chunk Nation. These fall into two moieties: Those-who-are-above (Thunder, Warrior, Eagle, and Pigeon) and Those-who-are-on-earth (Bear, Buffalo, Deer, Wolf, Elk, Fish, Water Spirit, and Snake). Every Ho-Chunk tribal member belongs to one of these clans, and each clan has its distinctive responsibilities to the community. The sculpture, entitled the “Ho-Chunk Clan Circle”, is located outside the Bakke Recreation & Wellbeing center on the northwest corner of the site.

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Originally called the Men’s Gymnasium, the Old Shed was the first home of recreational sports on campus for men. Built in the 1870’s close to Bascom Hall, it sat where the Carillion Tower now stands. It was 100 feet by 50 feet and cost about $4,000 to build. Before its construction, “military drills” and all indoor recreation took place in Bascom Hall.


In 1874, women petitioned to use the Old Shed for their own recreation. Administration accepted their petition and allowed them to use the gym for two one-hour sessions of “physical culture” classes per week. Campus newspapers praised the courage of these students saying, “We glory in the heroism and pluck of our sister students and assure them…there is no reason they can’t become celebrated athletes.”


On June 12, 1891, the Old Shed burned to the ground. Ironically, the Board of Regents had talked about replacing or expanding the space as early as 1884. Even before the fire, people had concerns that the gym was not big enough to meet programming needs. With the Old Shed gone, the need for a new recreational facility became a priority on campus.


Construction of the Armory and Gymnasium (the “Red Gym”) began in 1892 and finished in 1894 with a large opening ceremony. The building had a swimming pool, bowling alleys, assembly hall, large gym, batting cages, and rifle range. The assembly hall became a popular place for both students and Madison residents to hold political gatherings, dances, banquets, basketball games, and lectures. In 1911, an annex was added to the east side of the Red Gym. It was called “the first university field house” because its baseball cages, rowing machines, and track equipment made it an indoor facility for outdoor sports. Again, only men could use these spaces.


After the Red Gym opened, women asked to use it. They were using Ladies’ Hall, now Chadbourne Residence Hall, but they needed more space. Administration denied their request to use the Red Gym because they had plans to remodel Ladies’ Hall. In 1895, they added two floors of space to Ladies’ Hall, including locker and bathing rooms.


At the beginning of the 1900’s, only gym class offered physical activity for women on campus. They wanted more ways to play and be active. In December 1902, students organized the first UW chapter meeting of the national Women’s Athletic Association (WAA), a student-run organization supervised by the women’s physical education department. At the first meeting, students elected officers for six sports—basketball, bowling, hockey, tennis, golf, and rowing.


In 1902 and 1904 the Red Gym received national attention for hosting the Republican state conventions under the leadership of Robert M. La Follette. The Red Gym often hosted political gatherings because it was the largest space available in Madison and near the state capitol. The Board of Regents wanted students to have easy access to these political events.


Women’s sports started in 1889 when Clara E.S. Ballard arrived from Boston’s Allen School of Gymnastics. She convinced administration to allow space in Ladies’ Hall for a “physical culture” class. Students performed exercises to live piano music using dumbbells, wands, bars, and clubs that looked like bowling pins.

These classes were popular, but women wanted more. They formed the UW chapter of the national Women’s Athletic Association (WAA) in 1902.

In 1910, Lathrop Hall opened a recreational facility for women. Two years later, Blanche Trilling became the UW Director of Physical Education for Women. A strong director for 34 years, she was recognized on campus and nationally for creating relationships between women’s physical education departments and the WAA. She advocated loudly for women to be physically active, but also spoke out against women’s varsity intercollegiate competition.

50 years later, in 1972, the federal government passed Title IX legislation. Title IX allowed Women’s Recreation Association Coordinator Katherine “Kit” Saunders to help UW women compete at an intercollegiate and varsity level.

Even with the inclusion of Title IX, spaces still were segregated. In the early 70’s, Dean of Students Mary Rouse saw inequalities for women. She led a group of students to take over the men’s locker room at Camp Randall Sports Center (the Shell) and rename it “The People’s Locker Room.” This action and Saunders’ support led to renovations for women’s locker rooms at all rec facilities, not just the Shell.

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Finally in 1910, Lathrop Hall opened, and women students got their own recreational facility. It had a large three-story gym with an indoor running track, equipment for gymnastics, pool, four bowling alleys, locker and shower rooms, and administrative and teaching space. At the time, Lathrop was celebrated as one of the most modern and best equipped recreational buildings on any college campus in the United States. UW–Madison became a national leader in co-educational colleges.


From 1900 – 1910, students played more and more games between themselves – especially in track and field, basketball, and swimming. This was the start of intramural sports. In the 1910’s, intramural sports grew in popularity on campus. UW created a constitution for an intramural sports committee in 1912 and started one of the first college departments of intramural sports in the nation.


More than 6,350 UW students participated in intramural sports by 1930. Boxing was the most popular sport on campus. That year, 4,000 fans watched 20 fighters compete in the all-university boxing tournament at the UW Stock Pavilion. Boxing was so popular that it became a varsity sport by 1933. Over the next 27 years, the Badgers dominated national intercollegiate boxing, winning eight NCAA team championships.


In 1940, Professor A.L. Masley became Director of Physical Education (for men) and led intramurals. With the U.S. involved in World War II, Masley focused on getting men ready for battle. He pushed forward a requirement of four years of physical education for men and two for women. This requirement led to intramurals counting for physical education credit. Activities included basic conditioning, gymnastics, track and field, tumbling, and other sports such as basketball, tennis, and badminton.


By the end of the 1940’s, the Red Gym and Lathrop Hall were decades old and outdated. In 1953, UW decided to replace the 45-year-old annex at the Red Gym with a new practice facility. In May 1956, the Camp Randall Memorial Practice Building opened. Known as the “Shell,” it was 200 by 400-foot and “had room for baseball, tennis, and track to be practiced at the same time.” In 1972, the UW Intramural Recreation Board officially changed the Shell’s name to the Camp Randall Memorial Sports Center.


In 1958, UW approved plans to build a complex of gym buildings on the Lakeshore side of campus. Unit I (also known as the Natatorium or “Nat”) opened in fall 1963. The $2 million building had a swimming pool, diving well, gym, and offices. Unit II opened in 1967 at a cost of $3.8 million and had multipurpose gyms, offices, classrooms, research labs, locker and shower facilities, and handball and squash courts. Only men could use these spaces when they opened.


Intramural competition grew strongly in the 1900’s. (Intramurals are organized sports played between teams of students from the same campus.) More than ever before, students wanted competition between clubs and other college groups. In 1912, UW formed one of the first intramural sports departments in the nation. That year, 62% of men participated in intramurals on campus.

Blanche Trilling, Director of Physical Education for Women (1914 – 48), advocated for intramurals for women. She created the foundation for women’s intramural teams including basketball, swimming, bowling, archery, and track and field.

In the 1920’s, George Berg became the first Intramural Director and built a strong intramural program. Men participated in over 19 sports including fencing, crew, hockey, skating, skiing, handball, and horseshoes. The program developed fraternity teams, independent teams, and block leagues (organized by blocks in the housing district).

Berg and Athletic Director George Little both supported intramurals and believed in “athletics for all.” After several years, Joe Steinauer replaced Berg as Director. Together, Steinauer and Little reserved football and softball fields, baseball diamonds, an outdoor running track and jumping pit, and other spaces only for intramurals. They added touch football, water polo, golf, and trap shooting as well as traditional sports like basketball and baseball. At the time, reporters praised UW for having the widest range of intramurals available at any university in the country.

However, women still couldn’t participate in the intramural program. Without equal access to the intramural program, women organized inter-sorority matches, championships, and competitions between classes under the Women’s Athletic Association (WAA). In the 1930’s – 50’s, women worked around restrictions as much as possible by participating in “Play Days” and intercollegiate competitions.

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In the mid-1960s, women had two main recreational resources on campus: the physical education department and Lathrop Hall. Katherine “Kit” Saunders was determined to change this. In 1966, she became Coordinator of the Women’s Recreation Association (WRA), which replaced the WAA. Her leadership prepared the way for sport clubs and women’s varsity sports under two tracks – intramural sports and intercollegiate competition. This was just the start of her impact at UW.


Nielsen Tennis Stadium (NTS) opened in 1968 thanks to a gift of more than $2 million from Arthur C. Nielsen (‘18). Valedictorian of his class and devoted tennis fan, he is best known for developing the Nielsen TV Ratings, a standard for measuring television viewership. NTS made a big impression when it opened and was unlike any other indoor tennis facility in the nation. It features 12 indoor tennis courts, six squash courts, and spectator seating.

1968 - SERVES UP

As two major indoor recreational facilities were completed with Nielsen Tennis Stadium and the Natatorium, outdoor spaces became the focus. Along Observatory drive, six outdoor tennis courts were installed by several residence halls in the Lakeshore neighborhood allowing students to play tennis outside during the summer. Today, known as the Cole Recreation Area, it now includes nine tennis courts, four sand volleyball courts, and two blacktop basketball courts.


Milt Bruhn, a former UW head football coach, became the first Director of Club Sports in 1970. Kit Saunders joined his team as Coordinator of Women’s Sports. Their Intramural Recreation Board managed facilities and used student fees to fund club sports. Saunders had a budget of only $2,000 and struggled to get funding for women’s club sports, including competition with non-varsity teams from other schools.


Title IX opened possibilities for women’s sports at UW–Madison. Kit Saunders played a key role in meetings where women’s sports advocates and opponents disagreed. A chancellor’s committee to study women’s athletics on campus was created. In 1973, women on the committee recommended remodeling the locker and shower rooms at the Red Gym, Nat, and Shell to make them accessible for men and women. Saunders supported this in her doctoral thesis in 1977 and renovations soon began.


Discussions to build the Southeast Recreational Facility (SERF) started as early as the 1960’s when the Nat was built. With Lathrop Hall outdated and the addition of several residence halls in the Southeast neighborhood, UW needed a large recreational facility on that side of campus. The SERF opened in 1983 and was an immediate success. It had a pool, weight rooms, racquetball courts, running track, and two large gymnasiums. By the early 2000’s, the SERF was welcoming over 500,000 people a year.


In the 2000’s, the Southeast Recreational Facility (SERF) was 20 years old, and the Natatorium (Nat) was almost 50. There wasn’t enough space for the programs that students wanted.

In 2010, the “NatUp 2010” referendum to renovate the Nat did not pass. Students didn’t want to renovate only one facility; they wanted more. In the end, it was Rec Sports’ best mistake.

From 2010 to 2012, Director of Recreational Sports John Horn finalized a master plan to renovate or replace the Nat, SERF, and outdoor recreational fields. Horn shared the draft plan with Associated Students of Madison in September 2013 and explained why renovations were so important. The hard truth was UW ranked near the bottom of the Big 10 in space for student recreational and wellbeing activities.

In December 2013, the Student Services Finance Committee voted unanimously to ask students to consider a referendum that would raise student segregated fees to significantly improve campus recreational facilities.

In late February, the Daily Cardinal’s editorial board endorsed the referendum. The next day, Horn spoke about it again to the Student Council. He said it was the 67th presentation of the plan in the past two years, highlighting the effort, organization, and passion behind the project.

The vote the following month wasn’t close, as 87 percent of students voted to pass the referendum. This began an exciting new era for recreation and wellbeing on the UW–Madison campus.

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By 1994, 85 percent of UW students and around two-thirds of faculty and staff used recreational buildings and programs. Over 1.4 million people visited the Nat, SERF, Shell, and Nielsen Tennis Stadium every year. Over the next decade, campus experienced the “health club boom.” People wanted more cardio machines and aerobics and spin classes. They weren’t as interested in racquetball and team sports. By the end of the decade, fitness classes were held weekly on basketball courts in both the SERF and Nat.


Despite the popularity of the SERF, the building had many flaws. Budget cuts during building design led to a lack of space and air conditioning. From its opening day, plans for big changes began for the SERF. It took over two decades, but UW–Madison built a three-story addition with two sets of courts, cardio space, a multipurpose studio, and much needed air conditioning in 2004. That expansion led to more than 700,000 visits yearly to the SERF.

2010 - NatUp FAILS

By 2008, rec facilities needed updates to serve growing needs. Students stood in line for up to an hour to use cardio machines during the busiest times at the SERF. A student group called “NatUp 2010” supported a referendum to renovate and expand the Nat. In April 2010, a record 34.5 percent of students voted, but the referendum failed. The plan was not ambitious enough.


A grassroots effort began in 2013 to find the best way to support health and wellbeing needs on campus. The Student Services Finance Committee asked Rec Sports to develop a master plan to improve all indoor and outdoor facilities. The ambitious plan set out to replace facilities with two synthetic turf complexes and two state-of-the-art recreation facilities at a cost of $223 million. The student organizations Badgers for Recreational Reform and Student Recreational Leadership Council educated other students about the plan. Their efforts helped pass a referendum in March 2014 with (a state record) 12,070 students voting to pass it. This immediately changed the future of what it means to be an Active Badger.


The Near West Fields – the first project of the master plan – opened in May 2017. The synthetic turf was lined for many sports including soccer, flag football, baseball, softball, and lacrosse and resulted in fewer weather cancellations and longer playing seasons.

The SERF also closed in fall 2017 and construction began for the new Nicholas Recreation Center (Nick). Between 1983 and 2017, the SERF welcomed over 20 million people.


Throughout University Recreation & Wellbeing’s (Rec Well) history, UW–Madison students have led the change. From women petitioning for space in the Old Shed in the 1870’s to student organizations advocating for the master plan in 2014, students are the reason our history is so rich.

After the referendum passed, students continued to influence project design through focus groups, student organizations, and by serving on the core design team. They advocated for inclusive and accessible spaces that would promote holistic wellbeing, provide nutritional support, integrate technology, and bring outdoor elements inside. Their advocacy led to the intentional design of wellbeing spaces, the teaching kitchen, sports simulators, inclusive locker rooms, and spaces that feel uniquely “Madison.”

As facilities expanded, so did offerings. Students, especially student employees, helped expand the reach and impact of programming. In 2021, over 900 students worked with Rec Well. Student employees outnumbered professional staff by a ratio of 15-to-1. Group fitness instructors, lifeguards, AV techs, event staff, facility managers, personal trainers, communications assistants, and peer educators helped create robust recreation programs such as personal training, leagues in more than 30 different sports, over 100 weekly group fitness classes, wellbeing workshops, self-defense classes, tennis, swim and ice-skating clinics that welcomed more than one million Active Badgers yearly.

Student participation in our programs, services, and facilities continues to leave a legacy for future generations of Badgers to play hard, get fit, and live well.

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Rec Sports shifted from reporting to the Vice Chancellor of Finance and Administration to reporting to the newly created Student Affairs. Student Affairs focuses on programs and services for health and wellbeing, identity and inclusion, leadership and engagement, and student advocacy. This change created an immediate connection with University Health Services and other departments that help students succeed outside of the classroom and foster a sense of belonging to campus.


Recreational programming grew and changed during this time to include athletic training for all students, group fitness classes across campus and on the water, instructional lessons for many activities, professional and first responder certification offerings, mindfulness classes, personal training and group training, massage therapy, intramural sports with an expansion into esports, the largest sport club program in campus history, year-round youth programs (including a summer youth camp), and wellness coaching – for students and by students.


In 2019, the Division of Recreational Sports changed its name to University Recreation & Wellbeing (Rec Well). This started a new era in health and wellbeing at UW–Madison, showing that recreation is more than just sports. When the Nicholas Recreation Center opened, Rec Well expanded its programs and services to support holistic student health with wellbeing offerings such as massage therapy, meditation classes, and both group and one-on-one wellness coaching.


The COVID-19 pandemic stopped most campus operations and all in-person Rec Well activities between March and September 2020. Rec Well shifted to virtual programming to support students through recorded and live group fitness classes, esports, and meditation workshops. During this time, the Nat permanently closed after almost 60 years of hosting countless WIAA swimming championships, adapted fitness classes, and intramural leagues. Demolition of the Nat made space for a new Lakeshore recreation facility.


In September 2020, the Nicholas Recreation Center (Nick) opened as the first completed building project of the 2014 master plan. It has 30,000 square feet of fitness space, eight courts, five multipurpose studios, a one-sixth mile indoor track, and 50-meter swimming pool with diving well. Nancy Nicholas (‘55) and her family generously donated to the building in honor of her late husband Albert (‘52, ‘55) who passed away in 2016. During the pandemic, the Nick welcomed students and members at 25% capacity in its first year.


In 2023, the Bakke Recreation & Wellbeing Center, built on the site of the old Nat, was designed with spaces especially for wellbeing services and mental health support. Special features include an ice rink, climbing wall, sports simulators, teaching kitchen, esports room, rooftop fitness areas, and views out to Lake Mendota. Jim (‘77) and Sue Bakke generously donated to this project to have a long-lasting impact for the UW–Madison campus and the community. Chancellor Rebecca Blank stated, “The Bakke Center is going to re-define what a center for recreation and wellbeing can be.”

After Bakke opened, the Shell was given back to UW Athletics. Under Rec Well, the historic Shell hosted athletic competitions and community ice programs for decades.

Leadership Timeline

  • 1900 – 1920 Dr. James C. Elsom, Physical Education and Director of Gymnasiums
  • 1921 – 1927 George Berg, Intramural Director
  • 1927 Leonard “Stub” Allison, Assistant Badger Football Coach and Intramural Director
  • 1930 Joe Steinhauer, Intramural Sports Director
  • 1938 – 1940 Guy S. Loman, Intramural Director
  • 1940 A.L. Masley, Director of Physical Education and Intramurals
  • 1961 – 1970 Fritz Wegner, Director of the UW Recreation Facilities
  • 1984 – 2002 Dave Berge, Director of Recreational Sports
  • 2002 – 2012 Dale Carruthers, Director of Recreational Sports
  • 2012 – 2019 John Horn, Director of Recreational Sports
  • 2019 – 2020 Mick Miyamoto, Interim Director of Recreational Sports
  • 2020 – present Aaron Hobson, Director of Recreation & Wellbeing