Brown University’s women’s soccer team celebrates a Sept. 30 victory against rival Princeton. The varsity team has not lost a single conference game in four years. All photos courtesy of Brown Athletics unless noted otherwise.

Part I: Charting a bold path forward, Brown Athletics reimagines the student-athlete experience

The first installment in a two-part series highlights how the University is making gains in varsity and club sports competitiveness and expanding recreational programs for athletes at every level of play.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Everything was going swimmingly for varsity rower Will Legenzowski, until overexertion forced him to an unexpected standstill.

The then-senior at Brown University had been a first-stringer in every crew regatta since arriving on campus in 2018. He helped secure a Varsity 8 bronze medal in the 2022 Intercollegiate Rowing Association National Championship — Brown’s first IRA medal in eight years — and represented the U.S. in the Under-23 World Championship with three of his Bears teammates, taking home silver.

Will Legenzowski rows during a crew tournament
Varsity rower Will Legenzowski utilized Brown Athletics’ reimagined wellness and performance ecosystem to get back on the water after a back injury stalled his participation. Photo courtesy of US Rowing. 

His determination to compete fueled him through summer training with the national team in 2022 and the start of fall training at Brown, even as he developed increasing lower-back discomfort. He rowed through the pain during the Fall 2022 racing season until he experienced two severe back spasms during the biggest race of the fall — the Head of the Charles, in October.

Legenzowski knew he needed to prioritize health and recovery, so he turned to Brown Athletics’ sports medicine and training team.

The varsity rower would soon benefit from a strategic approach that elevates wellness as a key component to competitiveness in a reimagined Division of Athletics and Recreation. And his successful road to recovery and eventual triumph represents exactly what Brown’s athletics leaders have been working to accomplish.

“For the entire winter season, every minute of my day that wasn’t devoted to my schoolwork was devoted to recovery,” Legenzowski said.

Working for months with Brown wellness and performance experts, he learned exercises to ease his pain, grasped the root cause of an injury that’s common among rowers, and gained insights on how to prevent it from recurring.

“I thought, ‘I’ve been doing this for a while. I’m a very serious athlete, and I can’t imagine they’re going to tell me something revelatory,’” he said. “But it was so beneficial. I was in my ninth semester here at Brown, and I was learning so many new things.”

By the first race of 2023, Legenzowski was back on the water with his teammates, leading Brown to retain the Michalson Cup with a win over Boston University.

Efforts to enhance support for student-athletes and increase competitiveness for varsity teams represent a new day for athletics at Brown, said Vice President for Athletics and Recreation M. Grace Calhoun.

“We are pursuing bold goals the right way, with an education-first mindset,” Calhoun said. “Everything we’re doing is underpinned with integrity and a commitment to a strong culture of ethics, compliance, inclusion and belonging.”

Since arriving in March 2021, Calhoun and the full Brown Athletics team have worked to reshape and strengthen athletics and recreation through a comprehensive plan focused on five distinct priorities: competitiveness; broad participation in physical activity; student-athlete development and performance; opportunities for community engagement; and new resources to support innovative capital improvements and infrastructure.

We are pursuing bold goals the right way, with an education-first mindset. Everything we’re doing is underpinned with integrity and a commitment to a strong culture of ethics, compliance, inclusion and belonging.

M. Grace Calhoun Vice President for Athletics and Recreation
Headshot of VP Grace Calhoun

Together, the plan’s pillars create a foundation that Calhoun expects will elevate athletics and recreation well into the future, partly because it is rooted in broader Brown values — student-centered learning and making a positive impact — that draw students in the first place. That’s something Calhoun can relate to firsthand. She is a Class of 1992 alumna who competed in track and field as a varsity athlete at Brown while earning a degree in electrical engineering.

“Here, students are empowered to chart their own course and be agents of their own destiny,” Calhoun said. “We’re really embracing that in Brown Athletics, and this plan is intentionally complementary to the overall ethos of the University.”

Winning through wellness

One of the goals is to increase the on-field competitiveness of Brown teams. But as any athlete can attest, that takes more than determination. From sleep to nutrition to mental health, factors that influence performance are vast and varied. If a student-athlete is struggling — physically, emotionally, academically — that’s often reflected on the field. Recognizing that optimal health is a path to optimal performance is a driving philosophy.

Supported by the division’s dedicated staff, Calhoun led the charge to create a “wraparound” system that unites various services to provide better care for student-athletes. Earlier this year, Brown Athletics announced the creation of a wellness and performance ecosystem, overseen by Joe Walsmith, a Class of 1994 alumnus who played on the men’s soccer team. It includes a new sports psychologist, sports nutritionist and sports medicine specialist, and expands staffing in strength and conditioning, and sports wellness. Staff now regularly lead workshops on topics like sleep hygiene, anatomy and injury prevention, mindfulness and general well-being.

Those resources, available to teams and individual student-athletes, are anchored in collaboration, experiential learning and the development of problem-solving skills, Walsmith said. 

“We want to empower our community with this well-being toolkit that they can then take with them, well beyond their years at Brown,” Walsmith said. “We’re working to help equip our student-athletes for whatever they decide to pursue in life.”

The approach has resonated with Jaiden Stokes, who has experienced the challenge of balancing travel, training and practice schedules with academic and social demands. A senior on the women’s track and field team, Stokes serves on multiple groups, including Student Athletes for Mental Health Awareness. She is particularly excited about the addition of the sports psychologist.

“People are ecstatic,” Stokes said. “They’re excited not just to have an outlet to speak to someone, but also for how it’s going to be able to improve athletic performance at Brown overall — because it does make a significant difference.”

Leaders in Athletics have sought opportunities to leverage broader expertise at Brown, too. Teams have worked with the Mindfulness Center, for example, to learn techniques for focus and emotional regulation.

basketball player goes for the hoop
From dedicated sports psychologists to expanded access to sports medicine practitioners, Brown student-athletes say the resources are making a big impact both on and off the court.

“It makes you feel like a real Division I athlete,” Legenzowski said. “A lot of the initiatives they’ve been implementing are tailored to that, and it’s been incredibly effective. It’s impressive how much they’ve been able to improve the quality of life for student-athletes in just one year.”

Meanwhile, the University has focused on expanding coaching and support staff to help students perform and thrive. From women’s rugby head coach Rosalind Chou, to men’s swimming and diving head coach Kevin Norman, to gymnastics head coach Brittany Harris, multiple varsity teams have bolstered their success through new hires, from both within and outside of the University.

Brown has recruited staff from Stanford, the University of California and other schools with strong athletics programs. Their arrivals bring new insights that give the division an opportunity to think beyond its own borders, all while staying true to the history, tradition and perspective of what it means to be at Brown, Calhoun said.

It will take years to see marked changes in wins and losses, but the early returns are positive. Men’s and women’s water polo, women’s tennis, men’s lacrosse and women’s soccer were nationally ranked at one point in 2022-23, and women’s soccer has not lost a single conference game in four years.

“Prior to COVID, we won six championships in 10 years,” Calhoun said as the Fall 2023 season at Brown kicked off. “In contrast, we have won four championships in the past two years, and we are seeing our student-athletes and teams compete at a higher level. School records are consistently being challenged or broken, and we are seeing outstanding individual achievements like student-athletes being invited to compete for their national teams, including Team USA.”

Celebration after volleyball win
The women's volleyball team celebrates after their first win under Head Coach Taylor Virtue, who was recently promoted from her previous position as assistant coach.

One example of those individual achievements? Undergraduate Olivia Pichardo, who last year made history as the first woman to play in an NCAA Division I varsity baseball game. Pichardo earned a spot on the roster in November and has since become an inspiring voice for women and girls in sports.

“I really hope that there is a whole new wave and generation of girls that come around and try to make it as far as I have — and further — in baseball," Pichardo said.

Improved facilities are playing an important role as well. In 2020, the University completed the Center for Lacrosse and Soccer, which houses some of Brown’s winningest varsity teams and includes coaches offices, player locker rooms, a media space, press box, permanent grandstands and concessions. Renewals of the Marston Boathouse and Meehan Auditorium have provided Brown’s crew and hockey teams with upgrades to everything from plumbing and HVAC to cosmetic enhancements.

And with generous support from an engaged population of alumni and donors, Brown Athletics is planning for future facilities projects in the years to come, including a planned 76,000-square-foot indoor practice facility.

Focusing on club sports and recreational athletes

Roughly 1,000 — one out of every seven — undergraduates compete on a varsity sports team at Brown, but nearly all undergraduate, graduate and medical students are on their own fitness journeys.

In the 2022-23 academic year, over 1,600 students competed across Brown’s 42 club teams, which compete against other schools across various levels, from novice through national championship-level. That marked a 14% increase in participation compared to 2021-22, according to Deputy Athletic Director Jake Silverman. And it’s not just participation that’s on the rise. The men’s club rugby team capped an undefeated season in December with its first-ever national championship title in Division I National Collegiate Rugby.

“The significance of this is monumental,” said head coach Dave LaFlamme after the win. “In my 26 years here at Brown, this has been the strongest team we’ve been able to field. I am incredibly proud of all the work these guys put in both on and off the field. I’m also grateful for the support the University and Brown Athletics have provided to help make all this possible.”

There are also 148 intramural teams, which are facilitated by Brown staff and compete on campus, with about 1,100 student participants each academic year.

Silverman credits the division’s renewed focus on wellness for engaging all student-athletes, whether they’re competing in an NCAA championship or joining a pick-up game on Pembroke Field. He said that athletics opportunities work in tandem with academic life to shape student-athletes into the best versions of themselves.

“ It’s impressive how much they’ve been able to improve the quality of life for student-athletes in just one year. ”

Will Legenzowski Varsity rower, Class of 2023

“Our ability to provide team experiences, whether through intramural or club sports, is an essential ingredient that enriches the Brown experience and fosters a collaborative spirit and belonging in each participant,” Silverman said.

When the division first began tracking student participation in recreation a few years ago, the percentage of participants hovered around the high 60s to low 70s. Now, more than 87% of the student body is involved in some kind of recreational sports programming at Brown, with the goal of hitting 90% by the end of 2025.

In the 2022-23 academic year, the division tracked more than half a million card swipes into Brown’s  Nelson Fitness Center, the highest since the facility opened in 2012 — marking a 35% increase in gym attendance compared to the years before the COVID-19 pandemic.

students in the weight room
Renovated and improved spaces, in conjunction with an expanded staff and focus on performance, have increased athletic and recreational participation at Brown significntly. Photo by Nick Dentamaro/Brown University.

When Fitness and Wellness Manager Amy Dean joined Brown last spring, she met with dozens of students and saw an opportunity to expand group fitness programming and offer more introductory classes for students who might be nervous to start coming to the gym. She and others created an array of beginner-friendly programming. With classes like Weightlifting 101, students could show up with their friends, learn the basics in a judgment-free setting, then complete workouts on their own. Dean also adjusted the group-fitness schedule and changed class names to be more reflective of the inclusive community she observed.

Within a year, group-fitness participation increased by 300%. To accommodate the increased interest, the Nelson Fitness Center extended its operating hours, offering extra time for students to get their workouts in after other academic and extracurricular responsibilities that can extend late into the day.

All of the strength equipment was upgraded, new squat racks and deadlift platforms were installed, and older machines were replaced with contemporary, multi-function ones. Staff also worked to transform the lower level of Keeney Quad into a yoga studio. Each machine has the physical footprint to accommodate people who use wheelchairs or other mobility aids, and machines have information and instructions in Braille.

“Every day, we try to make sure that we are student-facing first,” Dean said.

Read Part II to see how are these improvements driving fan participation and engagement at Brown and beyond.