Credit: St. Luke’s University Health Network

The Municipal Ice Rink in Bethlehem has been transformed by St. Luke’s University Health Network into a vast, well-ventilated summer fitness center for local high school and college athletes.

During the winter months, skaters at the Municipal Ice Rink in Bethlehem race, glide and twirl around the frozen oval unmasked, close together and unconcerned about getting ill.

But since mid-June, this massive concrete-floored hall, with open sides and a high steel roof, has been transformed by St. Luke’s University Health Network into a vast, well-ventilated fitness center. Here sweating and panting young athletes from across the Lehigh Valley region are invited to train safely for their upcoming fall sports.

Through mid-August, the 17,000-square-foot facility is hosting a bevy of pre-teen and teenage boys and girls—all maintaining physical separation at marked workout stations.

They will hoist barbells and kettlebells, do calisthenics, stretch muscles, bend and pump to a soundtrack of loud, up-tempo music while preparing for their school’s football, soccer and basketball seasons. Speed and agility drills take place at a nearby tennis court.

This rink repurposing was the brainchild of Bobby McClarin, St. Luke’s Community Ambassador and Sports Performance Coach in the Sports Medicine Relationships division. The idea came to him in early May as he pondered the plight of kids who might have to miss training because of the restrictions and risks from the COVID-19 crisis.

“I thought, ‘We need to do something for these kids to get them in shape in a safe setting,’” said McClarin, a former linebacker for the U.S. Naval Academy football team.

Many high schools haven’t yet finalized their plans for fall training and/or competition.

McClarin proposed his vision for a COVID-clear strength and conditioning facility at the rink to City of Bethlehem and St. Luke’s officials, who both jumped at the idea.

“St. Luke’s focus is committed to keeping our community healthy, and this program is a great way to help meet that need,” McClarin said.

Between 20 and 80 athletes at a time can train at the rink, coming from a variety of middle and high schools from Bethlehem, Allentown, Easton, Northampton and Nazareth. College athletes and high school grads transitioning to college sports are heading there to work out, too.

The rink is leased from the city by St. Luke’s through funding provided by the Department of Orthopedics and Sports Performance. Freedom High School’s Strength and Conditioning Coach Imad Azar and McClarin lead the sessions, with assistance from Liberty’s Strength and Conditioning Coach Adam Sankovsky and Coach Roberto Diez.

Azar said the facility gives student-athletes “a huge opportunity to be in good shape before their schools start formal team workouts.”

Freedom Athletics held four sessions on a recent Monday, consisting of 180 student athletes in total. “This is a credit to the relationship and rapport that Coach Azar has built with coaches, staff and student-athletes alike,” said McClarin.

Each time they arrive, kids’ temperatures are taken with a digital forehead thermometer and they are asked about exposure or symptoms of the coronavirus. Antiseptic cloths are used to wipe down the equipment after each exercise or drill, and participants are reminded often to pump out and apply hand sanitizer.

The makeshift facility is a win-win added McClarin.

“The kids love it, and parents love it,” he said, adding that he has received many “sincere thank-yous” for providing the unexpected and safe service.

Come the cold weather, the skaters may return to frolic on the frozen rink in Bethlehem, masked or not. Meanwhile, St. Luke’s is helping to build young bodies into stronger, leaner and faster athletes in the safety of this unusual and healthy setting.

To learn more and register for training at the rink, click here.

Note: This local health news is brought to you in partnership with St. Luke’s University Health Network.