In the center of the complex student athletes mill about, waiting as they do between the lengthy delays typical to track and field meets. They’re unaware, as they should be, of one particular seam in the corner of the Toms River facility affectionately known as the Bennett Bubble. It’s darker than the others and stretches midway up the wall.
Those who understand the importance of the indoor athletic complex not only to the community and its businesses, but to the state’s young athletes, are likely to recognize this one seam, a bit darker than all the others, as a scar left by Hurricane Sandy.
The seam tore and the bubble burst. For a region devastated by Sandy, it could have been just another item on its list of destruction. But it’s come back, just weeks after being felled; though it carries a scar – a patched seam that’s a bit darker than the rest – the speed with which it was repaired is a testament to the town’s determination to rebuild.
“I think it shows the resilience of the people in the area,” Toms River Regional District Athletic Director Joe Arminio said. “Although we might have been devastated, we’re going to work to rebuild better. I think (the Bubble) is a symbol of people rolling their sleeves up and getting work done.”
The Bennett Bubble collapsed after heavy winds from Sandy caused the fabric to catch on a scoreboard and tear. The complex, pressurized and kept erect by constantly circulating air, lay crumpled on the ground, its atmospheric tent poles kicked away. Suddenly, the future of the location of nearly every important high school track and field meet was in doubt.
Yes, it’s just a place where children come to compete in athletics and not a home or business left in ruin by Sandy, but it is a landmark, a venue that generates business and carries statewide high school sports implications, and though many Toms River residents are still picking up the pieces of their lives following Sandy, it’s another thing returned to normal.
“I’m feeling as much relief as anything right now,” Site Coordinator Brian Wilkinson said during a recent relay. “When the place went down my phone didn’t stop ringing. Calls were coming in from coaches around the state. It wasn’t just that the Bubble went, it was the timing. There was a pretty good amount of panic throughout the state.”
On Friday, just a few days after the indoor track complex received its new CO and opened its repaired facility to athletic competition, the Bubble hosted the GMC Winter Track Relays, an annual meet that includes hundreds of student athletes from 28 Middlesex County high schools. It’s just one of several regional and statewide competitions the facility will host, including this week’s state indoor track and field championships.
Bennett, Wilkinson said, is the place where everyone runs. There are very few other facilities in the state that can handle the load the Bubble can, and while some indoor track and field spots like the Jersey City Armory can host large high school relays, none are set up to accommodate as many athletes and events as the Bennett Indoor Complex.
Bishop Ahr High School Assistant Track and Field Coach Danae Wise said when the school heard the Bubble had collapsed there was concern about when and where regional meets would be held.
Without the Bennett, however, prospects for the GMC Relays as well as other state indoor track and field events would have been in jeopardy. Losing the Bubble could have meant student athletes missing meets.
“I ran here when I was in high school and it’s always been one of my favorite facilities,” she said. “Honestly, we thought it was gone. We didn’t expect it to be restored so quickly.
“I’m just happy that the place is back up.”
It’s not just schools and students that are happy to see the Bubble back open, Wilkinson said. Take a drive along Hooper Avenue – the road where the Bubble is located – during any meet and you’ll find a school bus at every single restaurant and fast food joint. During state meets referees shack up at area hotels, and parents, who sometimes travel hours to see their kids participate in one track and field event during an entire day or days of a meet, kill time by shopping at the mall.
Arminio agreed, saying the reopening of the Bubble means a lot, not just to the athletes and coaches who use it every day, but to the businesses that have come to rely on the crowds that occupy it throughout the winter.
“I don’t think people realize the impact it has on businesses around the Bubble,” he said. “The Chili’s, the Friday’s, the mall. If you’re out there during a meet you’ll see the busses out there, guaranteed.
With this in mind, the decision to move quickly on reopening the Bubble was a priority for the district.
School officials did discuss the future of the Bubble soon after it collapsed, debating about whether to repair it, replace it with another inflatable bubble, or turn it into a brick and mortar facility. Ultimately, the district decided to repair the facility. Officials are hoping insurance and a contribution from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, will help cover a majority of the cost of repair, which has been estimated at as high as $800,000.
Wilkinson believes – hopes – that it was the right decision. The Bubble is built to withstand hurricane winds of up to 110 miles per hour, he said. It can be deflated, he said, but during storms with heavy wind the procedure is to over inflate the bubble so as to cause less wind resistance.
Though the Bubble wasn’t able to outlast New Jersey’s most significant storm in recorded history, Wilkinson thinks better luck awaits the indoor track and field complex during future storms.
“It was really sort of a fluke thing and I don’t think it will happen again,” he said. “It’s safe. We’re safe here.”