Women in Squash

By Jennifer Gabler

Valeria Wiens

There are lots of “courts” in which squash players can prevail. Valeria Wiens’ squash story shows the dark side of government bureaucracy and how a community of squash players worked together to help one of their own.

Valeria Wiens (R) with her husband, Hansi.
Valeria Wiens (R) with her husband, Hansi.

Valeria Wiens was identified as a sports protégé in Russia when she was six. She trained as a diver, and was part of the Russian Sports system where she focused her young life around training to be a top competitor in one particular sport. She moved to Cologne, Germany, but had grown too tall to be considered a top diving prospect so she switched her sport to high jump. While in Germany, she grew tired of high jump as a sole focus. A friend took her to a squash court for the first time and gave her five lessons with a club pro for her birthday. As a natural athlete, she excelled at squash and her coach started taking her to U17 tournaments. One memory she has is that the girls she competed against made jokes about her, as her German language skills were not so good. These jeers inspired her to put all of her energies into squash and she began to train twice a day, running in the morning and playing squash in the afternoon. She became a standout in the German squash circuit, finishing third in the German U19 rankings and No. 23 in the European U19 rankings in 2004. Valeria was part of the First Bundes League in Germany, the closest rung on the squash playing ladder to turning pro. A pro, such as Nicol David, would be teamed with three top German amateurs in spots two through four. The four person team would play every other weekend as a team and participate in a playoff at the end of the season.

Valeria loved to travel and met her husband, Hansi Wiens, when he coached the county team in Majorca, Spain. Hansi was from Germany, was a nine-time German Closed champion and was ranked in the top-10 internationally. Valeria finished high school in Germany and decided to move to Majorca to be with Hansi. For two years, she worked in the mornings, played squash in the afternoons, played on the county team and competed in team tournaments in Barcelona and Valencia.

At the end of two years, Valeria and Hansi decided to take a half a year off to travel around the world to locate a place where Valeria could pursue further study and Hansi could work as a squash professional. One of their stops was in Toronto where Hansi played with Jonathon Power. Hansi and Valeria accompanied Jonathon for a summer holiday visit to Dartmouth College where his parents, John and Nadine Power, were running squash camps. John Power was the coach at Dartmouth and had an opening for an assistant coach—Hansi applied successfully for the position. Hansi and Valeria returned to Canada, where he obtained his J-1 working visa and Valeria received an extension to her travel visa.

They had been in New Hampshire for two months, were making friends and a new life in the area. In October 2007, Hansi and Valeria traveled to the Canadian border to process the automatic 90 day renewal she was entitled to under her visa waiver before settling into the Hanover area. But the U.S. border guards had bad news, her permission to be in the U.S. had already expired nine days earlier. The border guards arrested Valeria and took her away. Hansi said, “They told me that I had two minutes to say goodbye and that’s it. Obviously Valeria was crying, trying to hug me and trying not to let me go. But there were three or four policemen around me who just kept telling me to leave. I didn’t know where she was going to go or what was going to happen.” The issue was that the date written in Valeria’s visa was abbreviated “O-c-t” and the “T” was close to the 3 so it looked liked the number 13. But that was an error. The visa waiver actually expired on October 3rd. So for U.S. officials, Valeria was in the U.S. illegally. Since 9/11, the penalties for violating visa waivers had been increased significantly to where you are removed, deported and not allowed to reenter the U.S. for ten years. Hansi and Valeria had been planning to get married and live together in Hanover so that Hansi could pursue a promising career at Dartmouth. All that was put on hold as Valeria was taken away in handcuffs and leg manacles to a jail in Newport, Vermont.

Hansi returned to Hanover and began contacting people he thought would be able to help free Valeria. Two local squash players with legal and business expertise supported Hansi and Valeria. Wey Lundquist, a trial lawyer and former assistant U.S. Attorney who had spent 15 years working for the American Bar Association in the former Soviet Union on human rights issues, helped Valeria by doing pro-bono legal work for the couple. Lundquist was also instrumental in helping track Valeria’s movements through the jail system and hiring Cynthia Arn, a lawyer in Portland (ME) who played a very important role in helping Valeria ultimately gain freedom. Charley Conquest, a Hanover businessman, set up a web site with updates, becoming a monitor for the case and organizer for Valeria’s supporters. He had an extensive email list, energized the local squash community to write and call their representatives in Congress and drew national press attention. The group lobbied the Vermont and New Hampshire congressional delegations to help block Valeria’s deportation. A groundswell of support for Valeria’s case began to build; putting the blame squarely on U.S. officials who supporters said could not read the date on their own documents. Supporters argued she was trapped in a post 9/11 bureaucratic maze, where common sense was sacrificed in the name of security.

The government bureaucracy that Valeria was caught up in included Homeland Security’s branches of Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Each passed the buck on which agency was making decisions on Valeria’s case. As Valeria was spirited through different prisons, no one would tell Hansi and her supporters where she really was and no one in the government would give a straight story as to the status of her deportation order and hearing. To her supporters, it felt as if they were “chasing smoke” according to Lundquist.

Valeria was moved to another jail in Vermont and then to a jail in Portland. She was kept in prison for four weeks where she was housed in a group cell alongside inmates held for crimes such as murder and drug trafficking. Valeria said the hardest part about being in jail was that she had no idea what would happen to her; jailers told her one thing and immigration officials told her the opposite. Hansi could only visit her for one hour per week and they were separated by a glass partition for the entire visit. It was also difficult to contact the lawyers helping her. She was issued short sleeved t-shirts to wear. She was extremely cold as it was November and prisoners were required to use their own money to buy a sweatshirt. She had no privacy, sharing a cell with five other women in Vermont and had to use a toilet in the center of the cell. The lights were always kept on and there was the constant noise of women fighting, swearing and yelling. She learned not to make eye contact with other inmates, many of whom she feared. She was kept in her cell most of the day, with only a few hours allowed out each day for meals or exercise. She was also subjected to full body searches.

Valeria encountered many other immigration prisoners while in jail. Many were poor and with no connections like she had. As she speaks five languages she was able to hear their stories and help with translations mostly into Spanish. One woman was seized as her son tried to get her into Canada for cancer treatment; she was in jail untreated and in pain. Many were upstanding persons trying to assist family members and while crossing the U.S. border became marooned in the jail system.

Valeria read voraciously while in jail (including Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”) to keep her mind active and keep the jail environment from encroaching on her. She also lost eight pounds.

All different angles were used to put pressure on the government agencies responsible for holding Valeria. One key argument from Liz Chamberlin, press secretary from Senator John Sununu’s office proved very effective. She argued that it would be foolish for the Republican administration to spend money to deport Valeria as she was willing to pay her own way out of the country.

The community pressure from all angles finally worked. Quite suddenly, Cynthia Arn was contacted and told that Valeria would be released. Cynthia raced over to the Portland jail to pick up Valeria and her deportation order now had “Revoked” scrawled at the top of it. Supporters never found out who in the government bureaucracy decided to rescind her deportation order or what part of the political and public pressure ultimately gained her release, but Valeria was told she had 72 hours to leave the U.S. She married Hansi in Hanover with John and Nadine Power as witnesses, and then immediately flew to Germany where Valeria received a three year visa extension. They reentered the U.S. and she has applied for a green card.

In March 2008, she was back in Hanover and recommenced her squash training in earnest, focusing on getting fit and honing her racquet skills and reaction time. It had been four years since she graduated from high school at 19 and she was eager to recommence her studies. She took the SATs and in November 2008 was admitted as a 22-year old freshman to start in the Fall 2009. She is Dartmouth’s number one recruit for 2009-2010 who will be coached by her husband Hansi. She is looking forward to collegiate competition, as last year she was only able to cheer on the Dartmouth team. Her target for this year is to help lead the Dartmouth team and win the individual collegiate championship.

When Valeria travels outside of Hanover, she always keeps in her possession her passport and the deportation order with the words “Revoked” written across the top that gave her release from prison. It gives her a feeling of comfort, as she always has a lingering sense that she may be challenged on whether she belongs in this country, but also it is a reminder that her competitive instincts honed on the squash court helped her get through the most difficult of situations.