James Tomsic – Medical University of South Carolina
Like so many places, the wellness center at the Medical University of South Carolina shut its doors in March 2020. Unlike other buildings, though, this one was converted by the MUSC hospital in just two weeks into a field hospital—300 cots replacing exercise equipment.
As James Tomsic recalls, the university’s hospital had seen the state of emergency in New York City and wanted to help. As the facilities director of the MUSC’s wellness center, he was on campus every day—and answering questions for the university’s emergency management team, which transformed the wellness building into a field hospital, complete with ventilators.
By early May, the field hospital was no longer needed and was dismantled without ever being used. By the end of that month, Tomsic was able to reopen the wellness center to members. With strict protocols in place—such as using antibacterial wipes and wearing face masks when not actively exercising—members could once again enjoy the 80,000-square-foot space, featuring everything from squash, basketball and racquetball courts to a stretching room, a swimming pool and 100 pieces of cardio equipment.
“Safety still remains our top concern, even now, over a year later, as we haven’t had a single case of COVID-19 traced back to us since we reopened in May 2020,” Tomsic says. “We want current and prospective members to see and use a wellness facility where they feel safe.”
No wait for weights
Despite the challenges, Tomsic admits the pandemic-induced two-month shutdown did have a silver lining: timing. Prior to the pandemic, the university had awarded a contract for the renovation of the weight room, but the work hadn’t started. During the shutdown, after the field hospital was dismantled, Tomsic and his team shifted the weights—dumbbells, bench presses and other equipment—from the first-floor weight room to the second-floor basketball court in preparation for renovations.
To accomplish this, Tomsic worked closely with a structural engineer to ensure a proper distribution of weight. When the social distancing mandates went into place, the two reevaluated the layout and changed the setup once more to ensure each machine and other weight room equipment was 10 feet apart.
“When we reopened, members weren’t inconvenienced by the renovation because the temporary weight room was ready to go,” Tomsic recalls. “The contractors could also immediately start their work, including asbestos abatement, in specific areas.”
The same month as the reopening, the $600,000 renovation of the weight room and two small lockers rooms—all three untouched for nearly three decades—began in earnest.
Lifting weights and conversations
Having members in the building was—perhaps counterintuitively—imperative to the renovation. As Tomsic explains, he partnered with the contracted architectural firm to obtain member feedback.
“They were experienced with focus groups, so when I told them the upgrades should be based off what our members want, they took my idea and ran with it,” Tomsic says. “They organized two focus groups from our over 8,000 total members at that time.”
The feedback proved crucial. For example, many people said they wanted a more spacious weight room. In response, Tomsic and the architects got rid of a 900-square-foot fitness assessment lab to open the area for dumbbell racks.
Building off the architects’ focus group, Tomsic created an online survey, with the goal of gauging what equipment members wanted, and what needed to be dumped. The responses (a few hundred in total) resulted in several upgrades, with Tomsic increasing the squat racks from three to eight, replacing older dumbbells and purchasing four new cable machines.
However, some decisions Tomsic had to make unilaterally. For instance, he’d noticed the floor-to-ceiling mirrors in the weight room were continually cracking at the bottom, likely due to weights being dropped. In response, he installed new mirrors that stopped 24 inches short of the baseboard. He then filled that gap with diamond plating to create a protective buffer between the mirrors and floor. Since then, he hasn’t had to replace a mirror.
“We also kept the concrete columns that have been here since 1954, but we clad those in a diamond plate finish to protect them and for visual impact—the finish gives the room a more industrial look,” Tomsic adds.
From farm to fitness
With the renovation completed, Tomsic opened the updated weight room (and two locker rooms) in June 2021. Satisfied that the renovation met member expectations and needs, Tomsic was also hit with a healthy dose of nostalgia.
When Tomsic joined MUSC as a program director nearly three decades ago, the wellness facility was undergoing an expansion. He became interested in everything that went into the renovation, from expanding into a new building to deciding what equipment to keep and what to order. He even stepped in to fix some of the facility’s out-of-service exercise machines.
“I’m not a mechanic by any means, but growing up I worked on a farm, so I have a reasonably deft hand at fixing things,” Tomsic says with a laugh.
Indeed, Tomsic has always been interested in how things work. Part of that interest stems from his athletic journey—he was a football and track athlete in high school, then a cross country and track runner as an undergrad at Augustana College. Fascinated with anatomy and physiology of the human body, he graduated with a bachelor’s in biology then went on to receive a teaching license.
After a few years of teaching and coaching—and eager for a career change, Tomsic obtained his master’s in exercise physiology from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. After graduating, he found a job opening at the Medical University of South Carolina that he felt would fit his interests.
“I never meant to end up in South Carolina. I wanted to be among the Rocky Mountains,” Tomsic says. “When I saw the position at the Medical University of South Carolina, I felt like it combined all my interests. Once I got there, I fell in love with the place and work.”
View this feature in the Blueprint Vol. II 2022 Edition here.
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