While the announcement of the Gateway District project that will reshape Kansas football made quite a splash this month, over the hill and across the KU campus there was another renovation project you might not have heard about.
Inside Robinson Gymnasium, on the far back wall through a journey of heat and humidity, sits a brand-new locker room for the KU women’s swimming and diving team.
It’s not a total remodel, nor is it new construction. But to the 34 KU athletes who call it home, the new look and feel of the place means everything. It features fresh paint, new graphics and Jayhawk signage, brand new plush leather couches and a few touches of the finest details that breathe life into the old room.
“This team definitely has pretty big goals for the future, and for the athletic department to say we’re going to make an investment in you guys was definitely motivating." — KU junior Addi Barnes
It also brings a sense of pride and feeling of everyday excitement to the swimmers and divers who spend their time there.
“This place just makes me feel professional,” sophomore diver Grace Zifcak told R1S1 Sports. “I think it just shows that our administration wants us to succeed, we want to succeed and we’re all here for the same thing.”
The Jayhawks got their first look at their new home late last week, and the timing of the unveiling was just about perfect.
Earlier this summer, before the announcement of the Gateway District project, the KU swimmers and divers saw the unveiling of a new locker room and weight room at the Anderson Family Football Complex, and sophomore swimmer Molly Robinson admitted that the overall vibe of her team at that time was one of jealousy.
“We’re swimming in a building that was built in the ’60s,” Robinson said. “So, at first, it almost felt a little like we were being overlooked. But this just proves that that’s not the case at all. It’s just so nice. That’s the best way to put it. It’s a nice thing to do, it’s nice for us to have and we’re just so thankful.”
Zifcak and Robinson joined junior Addi Barnes and senior diver Lauren Gryboski to give R1S1 a tour of the place on Monday. Each had her favorite part, and the four Jayhawks clearly loved each and every bit of their new home.
Gryboski called it “a little less high school gym and a little more pro sports,” and said her favorite part was how the color scheme was now consistent with KU’s other athletic facilities.
As a senior, she’s also looking forward to being more comfortable when she uses the locker room to study and the more open space for the pre-meet hype circles that are led by the seniors.
“A lot of little changes just make us feel like we’re being listened to,” said Gryboski, noting that the KU coaching staff asked the athletes for their input about what they’d like to see in a new locker room.
Although they first started hearing rumors about a new locker room at the end of the 2022-23 season, the renovation remained mostly a surprise, with the bulk of the work being done during a four-week period from late-July to late-August.
The Jayhawks said they joked about which athletes might cry when they made their first trip to see the new space last week. None of the swimmers or divers did, but assistant coach Jen Betz, who swam at KU from 1996-2000 and has been on head coach Clark Campbell’s staff since 2003, let the tears flow.
“She worked really, really hard to get this for us,” Robinson said. “And I think this does such a good job of setting the precedent that this is serious — this is not high school anymore, this is D-1, college athletics at a Power 5 school.”
Robinson said her favorite part was the new fueling station, which includes a lot more organization and a lot less clutter, making the space between the lockers and showers feel bigger and more functional, as well.
For Barnes, who grew up in nearby Overland Park, Kansas, it’s the fresh, new Jayhawk graphics everywhere that make her smile the most. New name tags above the lockers, a wall with the evolution of the Jayhawk and another with the alma mater, as well as a giant “Rock Chalk” sign above their equipment area on the way out to the pool deck all leave no doubt as to what any of these athletes are doing here.
“I’m known for my Jayhawk spirit,” Barnes said. “And when I look around, it just makes it real, like I’m about to go represent the University of Kansas and that’s a dream. I think it’ll do a lot for recruiting, too.”
Zifcak’s favorite part is the large new leather couches that serve as the centerpiece of the room. This group guessed that they could fit 13 or 14 of their teammates on the couch together, and Zifcak said they were a major upgrade from the old red ones that were peeling and on their last legs.
“The locker room is where you are right before you walk out and compete, right before you start a practice, and it’s a space that we want to encourage us and bring us up and hype us up and bring us together even more,” she said. “After a morning lift and class all day, you just want to sit down for a second and I think the couches are just a space where we can come and rest for a second before we go do what we’ve got to do.”
Added Robinson: “We can all snuggle now.”
Robinson noted that living in the limelight, even if only for a few days, was nice for the program that she said does not get as much recognition as most other sports on campus. And not one word of that came across as her feeling sorry for herself or whining. Instead, she said the sweet surprise brought feelings of appreciation and a responsibility to live up to the commitment. The four Jayhawks also said they understood how football's increased success and the money that program brings to the university was creating new opportunities for other programs, as well.
“I’ve always felt like I was made a priority as a student-athlete here, but to actually see these changes, it kind of puts a spotlight on us and makes us feel like we have people watching us,” she said. “And that makes us a little bit more motivated and a little bit more excited for practice and competing, too.”
Added Barnes: “This team definitely has pretty big goals for the future. And for the athletic department to say we’re going to make an investment in you guys was definitely motivating. Everybody loves new facilities, and this shows that we’re part of an athletic department that cares about our program.”
With school back in session, the Jayhawks are gearing up their training for the first event of the 2023-24 season — the Sunflower Showdown on Oct. 6 at Robinson.
KU will host seven home events between October and January before postseason action gets under way next February.
— For tickets to all KU athletic events, visit kutickets.com