By Jennifer Gabler
The best part of being tournament director for the Howe Cup this year was all the people I met through email and then met in person at the event. I got a call a couple of weeks before the event from a Hartford area code from Eleanor Robinson who told me that she was from Cleveland and we matched her up on a California team. That mishmash of geographies tells one aspect of Eleanor’s squash life, she has lived all over and squash has been a part of her life everywhere she has landed.
Another aspect of her squash life is that she has been a pioneer in playing, organizing and coaching squash. Eleanor grew up in the late 60s and 70s as her father’s informal doubles partner at the Piping Rock Club on Long Island. “I do not remember ever seeing another woman on the court at that time. I played hard ball with my brothers on the singles courts too.”
She then did a very a-typical east coaster move in the late 70s and went to college at the University of Washington in Seattle. She was a work/study student who was, among other things, a ladies locker room attendant. She played on the men’s lacrosse team until she started the women’s lacrosse program. At that time, they converted several of the racquetball courts into squash courts but needed instructors for the new facility. As a rare transplant easterner who knew how to play squash, she was hired as an undergraduate to be the only squash instructor for the University. “Lacking much training myself, as this was in the day before formal squash instruction for females, I took out books from the library and read a chapter and taught a chapter. I would teach faculty and students and make sure that I read enough to get through 45 minutes of instruction when I felt so inexperienced myself.”
In the mid 80s, she was hired as a biology teacher and three season coach for Tabor Academy in the early years of coeducation there. She initially coached field hockey and lacrosse. And she was also responsible for helping to develop the girls’ residential program. In the winter they asked her to coach the girl’s varsity squash team. Ellie Pierce was on the team, so she had to ramp up her coaching expertise fast by reading more and watching more. “We did very well except for when Ellie faced off against Demer Holleran at Exeter, which was always very exciting and drew crowds. “
Eleanor married an Episcopal priest and gave birth to three children while working and she had to hang up all racquets during that busy time. In 1993, she moved to rural Stonington, CT, an area with no squash scene at all. I started the girl’s lacrosse club for the region and coached it for ten years while working and raising the kids. She had an “Aha” moment and approached the headmaster of the independent day school on the Connecticut College campus, the Williams School in New London. “I suggested that his school start a squash program using the Conn College courts. He loved the idea and hired me as the first coach of the start-up program. I worked with Coach Bill McNalley of the Conn College team to arrange court time, but also to seek tips on coaching and mentoring from the Conn College players for our novice middle and high school players.” Bill McNalley would leave his lesson plans taped to the back wall for her to use, gave her a lot of coaching tips and was very generous with court time. Her girls were able to see great college matches which was important in Southeastern Connecticut where there was not a huge squash presence. As “guests” in the Conn College facility, she taught her middle school and high school girls to respect their mentors, the facility and “to do this gracefully.” That season her team played Urban programs in New York and New Haven, but also played prep schools such as Pomfret. She got back into playing herself. “I always loved my own pre-practice Friday afternoon game against the Woman’s Lacrosse coach for Connecticut College. Neither of us would give up on a tough shot in those exhilarating just-for-fun games.”
Last year Eleanor made another move, this time to Cleveland, Ohio. “I was sad to leave the Williams School, but we joined the Cleveland Skating Club so that I could have at it with three racquet sports all at the same facility. Thanks to the internet and a GPS, I could sub all over the region in all three sports, paddle, tennis and squash.” She got back into competitive play herself, playing in the Cleveland Open, the Skating Club Squash Championships and the Howe Cup. She says “very surprisingly” but at this point in her story I am not surprised that within a few months of arriving, she was hired as the first Executive Director of a start-up urban squash program, Cleveland Urban Squash. She attended Urban Nationals at Harvard and met all of the Urban Squash Executive Directors, loved watching the New Haven and New York Urban programs in action and found it very inspiring. “We have a long way to go in Cleveland, but we have motivated and helpful pros, a great Board and growing support behind the blossoming program. I also passed the Cert 1 course for US Squash coaching held at Yale last spring (have yet to hand in my written test!) “
Besides playing herself, organizing and coaching, Eleanor has three children playing squash right now, one at Brooks School, one at St. Lawrence University and one trying to gain ground on the all-male club team at Kenyon College on spectacular new courts. “I live close to Kenyon and really want to see that program flourish with a paid coach and a women’s program.” Eleanor says “It’s been such an unlikely path, initiating squash instruction at University of Washington, being asked to coach at Tabor, starting the program at Williams, getting involved in the urban squash program in Cleveland…..But through curiosity, perseverance and dumb luck, I just ended up with good opportunities. I guess I was just in the right place at the right time.” I’d definitely disagree as I think people like Eleanor make their own opportunities. She is an incredibly talented coach and organizer of women’s sports because she really enjoys it. As she says “I could probably coach badminton or any other sport.” Well, I hope she sticks with squash and we look forward to having a strong Cleveland (or wherever she finds herself next year) contingent next year at Howe Cup.