By Paul Assaiante, National Coach
In life the pursuit of goals is a bit like building a railroad track. You must first come up with your destination, and this is the plan or the “dream” if you will. Nothing happens without first dreaming.
You then must get down on your hands and knees and begin the process of the day to day work of placing railroad ties that will lead you toward your dreams. Every so often you need to stop, stand up and look at where you are headed to make sure you have not gotten “off track”.
This is where we are with regard to our elite teams. We have a dream, the dream of having U.S. SQUASH be a force in the world of squash. A program to be dealt with, one that is annually vying for championships. Together we are going about the business of carefully placing those ties in place to make this happen.
When we are speaking about US SQUASH, we essentially are talking about four teams. Junior Men’s, and Junior Women’s, and Men’s and Women’s teams. While we have a report that is quite positive, we are certainly not satisfied, for that would breed complacence, but we are excited about where we are and where we hope to be headed!
There were several highlights this past year. However, let’s start first by highlighting the 2011 World Junior Women’s Championships!
Due to the instability in Egypt last year the WSF was desperate to find an alternate site. U.S. SQUASH quickly moved and arranged for this wonderful event to come to US soil. It was deemed that Harvard would be the best site, and thanks to the support of several donors, we were able to bring these world class athletes to Boston. It must be noted that none of this would have been possible without the generosity of Al and Kathy Gordon, who donated in excess of six figures!
U.S. SQUASH put together a tremendous support team, led locally by Tom Poor, Lenny Bernheimer and Dan Reagan, with Chris Smith and Christine McKenna in charge of all day to day logistics.
What a wonderful team the US was able to put on the floor for this tournament. Amanda Sobhy, Olivia Blatchford, Haley Mendez, Sabrina Sobhy, along with Olivia Fiechter, Maria Elena Ubina and Julianne Chu for the individual championships, as well as a fabulous coaching staff of Jack Wyant and Natalie Grainger. We should extend a heartfelt thanks to Jack, who for years has provided these young ladies the structure and supervision needed for such a run, and who, following the event, stepped down as head coach to focus more on his growing family. You can imagine what a boost it was for our girls to have a player such as Natalie join in as a coach. The result of everyone’s collective efforts was a SECOND PLACE FINISH IN THE TEAM WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS. Natalie will remain in her affiliation with the Girl’s team in spite of taking over the management of the new Chelsea Piers facility in Stamford, CT, and Meredeth Quick will be stepping back in to become the National Coach for our Girls’ squash this summer.
This year was also the rotational one for the Men’s World Championships in Paderborn Germany. The team took a blow two months before the event when our Men’s Coach, Chris Walker, developed a severe abdominal aneurism that required emergency surgery. Thankfully he is back and fully mended, but he quickly enlisted the services of Gareth Weber, a former national player for Wales and former Yale University coach. We prepared to go to Paderborn with a series of training squads only to learn that Gilly Lane had developed a bad back injury. But Gilly being Gilly, wild horses were not going to hold him back, so Julian Illingworth, Chris Gordon, Gilly and Todd Harrity, the Princeton standout, left with high hopes but with some uncertainty. Gilly won a deciding match versus Switzerland, which put us in the elite 8 and, on the final day, we upset India to finish 7th in world! As it turns out, another team was eventually disqualified to make the US a best-ever 6th! We were, as you can imagine, simply ecstatic. Soon thereafter Gilly had to retire from the Pro Tour due to the magnitude of his back injury, but I would like to thank Gilly for being so heroic for U.S. SQUASH.
This was also a year for the Pan American Games. What a trip! Our teams performed well at these quadrennial games despite many setbacks. On the women’s side, our best three players were unable to compete (Latasha Khan, Amanda Sobhy, Natalie Grainger), leaving a gutsy squad of Olivia Blatchford, Lily Lorentzen and junior Maria Elena Ubina to compete. For the men, US No. 2, Gilly Lane, pulled out due to injury, with Graham Bassett filling in to support US No. 1 Julian Illingworth (who played slightly injured), and US No. 3 Chris Gordon. National Coach and Manager roles were a revolving door as Chris Walker and I both had serious health issues leading up to the games. Ultimately, Chris ably supported both squads. Despite all of this, every member of the team brought home a medal from Guadalajara, Mexico. The total US medal count of four included one silver medal (Men’s doubles) and three bronze (Women’s doubles and teams and Men’s teams). All in all, a tough, challenging, long and often frustrating 10 days in Mexico, with plenty to deal with on the fly—though the team came through well. We held it together and the team all feel they reaped the rewards of the ‘grind’ part of the experience.
Going forward, we need greater overlap between juniors and adult teams, greater involvement by college players in our national championships and, in general, a more organic shift from junior to college to representing the country. Greater overall coordination by a director of all activities would clearly make a difference.
I am giving us good marks for where we are. However, we need a more cohesive focus and unified thrust across all programs. If we are to be perfectly candid, we are probably one of the only countries in the world of squash that is trying compete on the world stage, but does not having a full-time national director—a person who wakes up each day with only one focus. What are each and every one of our elite players doing today to take themselves and us to the next level? What is their fitness level, their mind set, their ongoing training? How does their training regimen fit into the overall seasonal training grid? When will our next training squad session occur, and when are the next competitions? How are we doing on our fundraising? How are we doing in terms of branding our teams and players?
This is an exciting time for U.S. SQUASH and our elite teams. We are perched on the precipice of truly taking ourselves, not to a place where we might be successful but, with the proper plan, the right people and support for both, to a place where we WILL be successful.