Like concert-goers eager to rush through gates for the best seats, a crowd gathers to await the 6 a.m. opening of Columbia's Supreme Sports Club -- said to be the busiest fitness facility in the nation.
Minutes after the club's doors open, banker Bill Bishop goes 4-on-4 on the hardwood with his regular basketball crew. Insurance broker Bud Renninger and buddies are swinging on the club's racquetball courts. And dental hygienist Patty Lowry, broken wrist notwithstanding, is running around the indoor track where she met her boyfriend.
The People Tree is Columbia's symbol of a community that nurtures people, but the sports club is its monument to recreation.
More than 2,000 people jam the Columbia Association (CA) club on its busier 17-hour days. In CA's last fiscal year, it logged almost 600,000 visits -- making it the most heavily used fitness facility in the nation, according to an international association of health clubs.
"I don't know of any other club in that range," said John McCarthy, executive director of International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association of Boston, which has 2,500 member clubs and surveys 12,000 annually in the country. "I don't think that club is ever really quiet."
On a recent Friday, the club on Deepage Drive in Owen Brown village hummed from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.: A crush of professionals fed early-morning exercise addictions; mothers dropped off children in a "Kidsport" program before launching into late-morning workouts; afternoon birthday parties preceded early evening basketball pickup games; and hordes of youth cruised the roller skating rink.
"Columbia is the type of environment that attracts people who value physical well-being as well as the physical environment," said Steven Mendelsohn, the club's athletic director.
"A lot of people have found one love in this building, then maybe expanded to others."
Some members' lives literally revolve around club activities.
Ms. Lowry, 41, rarely misses her weekday morning, 50-minute running and weightlifting workout. Club employees are so used to seeing her that they asked her about her one-day absence after she broke her wrist, said the Ellicott City resident.
Mr. Bishop, 46, of Columbia said he's hooked on his twice-weekly basketball games with the group that has played together for four years. "At work, people say, 'You're in good shape. How do you do it?' " he said. "I tell them I play basketball before the world even starts."
Mr. Renninger, 50, of Ellicott City is one of about 20 regulars for morning racquetball, some of whom have played together for 15 years. "It's become as much a social deal as competitive," he said. "I don't know how to get to work except through this parking lot."
A few hours after they went off to work, Kim Wilkerson drops off her son, Andrew, 3, at the Kidsport activity room to play with a dozen other youngsters. "He's improved his motor skills and learned good socialization skills," she says before slipping away for her own workout.
The club -- formerly called the The Supreme Court -- wasn't always so broadly appealing. Its array of offerings is the result of a $6.5 million acquisition and renovation project by CA from 1989 to 1991.
CA bought the privately owned Supreme Court, a 16-court racquetball facility, in 1981 and converted some space into aerobics studios, and weightlifting and fitness rooms.
In 1989, CA bought the adjacent Skateland building for $1.6 million from another private owner. It then spent $4.9 million to renovate the rink into an all-purpose sports arena, add a &L; "Women's Gym" and build a new structure with an indoor pool, arena entrance way and locker, nursery and reception areas.
The association also built an underground connection to the Supreme Court building, creating a 110,000-square-foot recreational complex -- two to four times larger than typical racket and fitness clubs.
The club, which has 280 mostly part-time employees, is one of two CA recreational facilities that generate a profit.
The other is the Athletic Club in Harper's Choice village.
CA package allows access
CA has more than 13,000 members of its Package Plan, which allows access to the Supreme Sports Club, golf courses and other recreation facilities for a family rate of $552 annually for Columbia residents and $867 for nonresidents. Family renewal rates just for the club are $456 for residents and $652 for nonresidents.
The club arena, the site of year-round volleyball and basketball games, converts to a roller skating rink on weekends. It makes the club unique, said Robert Goldman, CA's director of membership services. As many as 1,000 members or more participate in league play.
On a recent Friday night, about 300 youths and parents packed the arena for a three-hour, in-line skating session, with lighting effects and a disc jockey spinning upbeat music.
Joe Harab, 38, of Laurel was one of the few adults to brave the sea of whirling youths -- but not without wrist protectors. His son, Joshua, 7, was celebrating his birthday, along with his two brothers and friends.
Mr. Harab said he lets his sons dictate the family's entertainment, then tries whatever they like to do. "My kids take to this like a duck to water," he said. "I feel like the kid out there. It's a little role reversal."
Joshua took a break from testing his new in-line skates just long enough to give the club a thumbs-up ranking. "Chuck E Cheese's and here are the funnest," he said.
Loretta Patterson, general manager, is perhaps most proud of the programs for youth, including summer camps that draw up to 200 children a week and "Fun Sports Adventure" sleep-overs that give groups the run of the facility from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
But the Supreme Sports Club isn't overlooking the other end of the demographic spectrum. Its "Mature Market Program" targets the 50-and-over age group for exercise sessions.
"When people come for the first time and realize they can do all these things under one roof, they get so excited," Ms. Patterson said. "Members are constantly suggesting things. When you have members that active in your club, it has to be a success."