By Kristi Maroc
Hard work, dedication, setbacks, perseverance and sacrifice are key features of any athlete who has made it to the point of realizing exceptional achievements.
For this year’s S.L. Green U.S. National Champion Chris Gordon, the story is no different.
Since first picking up a racquet at eight years old, Gordon has dedicated his life to pursuing a professional squash career, and his hard work over many years has led to some of his dreams recently becoming reality.
During an immensely triumphant 2012-13 season that culminated in his national championship win in March, 26-year-old Gordon is floating on cloud nine, though still hungry to keep the momentum going and working towards further success.
“It’s been a really nice year for me, really special…but I’m really trying to take it in my stride too. I’m still at the beginning and have a lot more to achieve, so I can’t be complacent or relaxed in any way,” says Gordon.
“It’s always a dream to win a national title, and to have success in the PSA. I dreamed as a kid to play on the glass court in the major events, which I’ve done twice this year.
“After being on PSASquashTV commentating, it is even more special, being on the other side. So many times I’ve been sitting in the booth talking about other players on the glass court, and now that’s me.
Gordon’s world ranking has jumped from No. 81 at the same time last year, to his current position of World No. 54, his highest ever ranking.
“I think I’m still young enough and I have enough time left in my career to accomplish much more. I just keep telling myself hard work is what got me here, and more hard work is going to get me where I want to go.
“There were a couple of years in there where I had a lot of setbacks, and I really had to push through and keep telling myself that I just have to have faith, and that if I kept working good things would happen.”
Gordon began the season with a wildcard entry into the 2012 Delaware Investments U.S. Open, which he leveraged to achieve a momentous win over Egyptian Hisham Ashour. It was a career highlight accomplishment for Gordon, who was at the time world ranked No. 72, and beat the World No. 15.
As the Egyptian’s final shot hit the tin and Gordon sank to his knees in celebration, the enthusiastic and vocal home crowd rose to applaud their national hero for his home turf success. It was a win that has gone down in the books as a special moment for squash in the United States.
“This is the best moment of my squash life,” said a delighted Gordon on leaving the court.
“I’ve had a few good wins, a few close misses against some of the top guys, but this tops everything by a long way. I can’t believe it!”
He also qualified for the main draw of the 2013 J.P. Morgan North American Open in February, and narrowly missed out on progressing further than the first round after playing a gripping five game main round match against World No. 11 Tarek Momen which lasted 85 minutes and went to an astounding 21-19 in the fourth game.
But the climactic point of his season and his career to date came when he became the U.S. National Champion.
“I’ve dreamed about this since I was a little kid. I can’t quite believe it,” Gordon said.
“Winning this national title was really special for me because growing up as a kid I knew this was my first coach, Richard [Chin]’s, first goal. He always wanted so desperately to win one of these and he came so close. I think he lost in five finals and a couple of them were in five sets.
“Similarly I had already lost in two finals, so it was starting to feel like neither one of us was actually going to get there. So getting that moment was really, really special for me.”
Gordon grew up playing under Chin’s guidance at the Harvard Club in New York City after being introduced to the sport by his father who, while not a serious squash player himself, thought it would be a good sport to encourage his son to play.
“I was really lucky early on that Richard Chin became the coach at the Harvard Club. He helped me out so much as a young player in terms of getting me into men’s leagues and encouraging me to play junior tournaments, and obviously all the coaching and training he helped me with,” says Gordon.
“I was just really lucky with the situation I fell into, because at the club there weren’t a huge amount of juniors, but Richard really encouraged me to play adults and amateurs around the city, and I think in the long run it’s been a huge benefit to me.”
“Richard was really the first person that taught me the importance of working hard and taking my body to the next level, and the commitment needed on an emotional level if I wanted to be a successful professional.”
Surprisingly, Gordon never actually played on a ‘real’ softball squash court until he played his first junior tournament at eleven years old.
“I remember the courts at the Harvard Club were those old dungeon type courts, where you have to duck your head down to get in the small doorway.
“The first three years I played was actually all on those hardball courts, so it was a really quick adaption when I got into that first tournament and all of a sudden I was on a court that’s wider.
“Actually, the wideness didn’t bother me so much, it was more that the out lines were so low that I was a bit panicked about hitting the ball out.”
He obviously adapted pretty well, however, because as a junior Gordon went on to have many successes, including becoming the U.S. Junior National Champion three times—the first time in 2001 in the under-15 division, and again in the under-19 division in 2004 and 2005.
“Another highlight for me was when I won the German Junior Open in the under 19s, which was quite big. I beat Simon Rosner in the final in Germany. It was a really big moment for me, knowing that I could play that level in a relatively big international event against a top European player.
“Other big moments as a junior probably surrounded playing for the US. The first time I played for the US was when I was a 16 year old for the junior team, and then I made my debut on the men’s team when I was 18. That was really huge because that was the real true transition from me becoming a junior to playing men’s squash.
Gordon grew up being home-schooled from ten years old, which he says benefited his squash training and progress.
“Being home-schooled was definitely different. I think as a pre-teen and early teen it was really useful in the sense that it allowed me to play so much sport, but as I got a bit older it became more of a necessity because I turned pro really young, at around 17.”
“It was difficult because I didn’t get to be involved in the same social situations that a normal teenager would. There was definitely a period in my life where everything was pretty one dimensional…everything was around squash and I didn’t have the outside interests that other kids would.”
“For me the good things have outweighed the negatives though. It allowed me to travel so much with my squash and not to have to worry about playing three tournaments back to back when I was still in high school.”
Another instrumental part of his squash development was at 14 years old when he and his family decided to move to England.
“That was when I knew I was going to be a professional,” says Gordon.
“The whole reason behind the move was so I could train and be in a more professional squash environment.
“I was so lucky because of the position my parents were in. My dad was a bit older and retired, so they didn’t have the normal restraints that a lot of families had.
“So if there was something that they felt, and I felt, could really help me excel and open new doors for me, they were more than willing to take it and see where it took me.
“My parents have always helped me on this journey. Without them it wouldn’t have been possible at all. They’ve really adapted their own lifestyle to help put me in situations that would help me improve and further my game.”
Internationally renowned squash coach David Pearson, who coaches many of the world’s top players, became Gordon’s coach when he moved to England.
“Meeting DP [David Pearson] was huge for me. He’s been instrumental in how I hit the ball and my whole technique.
“To be honest, he’s a bit like a second father to me actually. He knows my whole game, my whole personal life inside out, everything about me he’s involved in. So that’s been really important.”
“The other thing that had a big influence on my junior career was a period from when I was about sixteen to about twenty where I spent a lot of time and communication with Jonah Barrington.
“Jonah gave me so much of his knowledge in terms of training and the commitment it takes, and how much success and training needs to mean to you. You need to train because you love it, you need push yourself to these boundaries because you love to see how far you can push yourself.”
Speaking of pushing yourself, in the limited spare time Gordon has between training, competing and traveling, he also plays ice hockey.
“I don’t get to play as much as I’d like, but in general when I’m in New York I try to get on the ice one or two times a week.”
Gordon spends approximately three to four months on the road traveling overseas each year to compete and train for squash.
“There’s a certain point where the traveling gets to be too much and over- whelming, but as long as I can get a couple of weeks at home I can bounce back, and then I’m ready to get back out there and experience something new.
“I love going to different places and cultures and seeing different parts of the world. I’ve had so many interesting experiences when traveling, like being escorted around India and Pakistan with armed guards—that was a bit different and exciting.
“Maybe one of the funniest things was that me and Julian [Illingworth] had been to the Pan Am Games before, but Graham [Bassett] hadn’t. So when we were all met in the airport by armed guards we were expecting it, but he couldn’t believe that the police escort was for us.
“Even when we told him he thought we were pulling his leg, and so it took him about ten minutes to realize that was actually happening and that all these police and lights were for us. We kind of got priority and got to cut through traffic and all.
“I’ve also had a few situations at bigger events, like the Pan Am Games, where they kind of put the athlete up on a pedestal and I’ve been mobbed for photos.
“Maybe four years ago at the World Games in Taiwan we went to watch rugby sevens, and the crowd knew we were athletes and we got mobbed in the stadium.
It’s unbelievable to think that more famous athletes go through that on a daily basis. For us it was more of a novelty, but just to see what it feels like and how much patience these top athletes have to have on a daily basis and the attention they get from the fans, it’s ridiculous.”
That kind of celebrity treatment doesn’t happen all too often in the squash world, but as Gordon’s success has grown as a professional athlete there have been more and more moments where he’s experienced the enthusiasm and attention of fans.
“I remember when I was a kid I used to run after these athletes to get their autographs, even in hockey I’d go to the games early to watch them warm up, so I completely get how important these athletes are to the fans and how much that interaction means to the fans,” he says.
“I try and make myself as available as I can and I feel really honored that people even think to have that kind of reaction towards me. It feels really special. It’s really cool.”
That feeling will become even more prominent for Gordon and all professional squash players if squash’s bid for a place in the 2020 Olympics becomes a reality.
“The Olympics is a huge deal for me. I think that squash getting into the Olympics will completely change the game, and it is certainly a massive goal for me,” says Gordon.
“If we do get into the Olympics in 2020, I’ll be 34 years old and I completely believe that if I do the right kind of things—if I train right, eat right, and manage myself well—I can be playing a high level of squash when I’m 34.
“I certainly have that as a massive goal, and it would be an amazing way to cap off my career. It would just be a dream come true for me to get to the Olympics.”
There’s no doubt that with many of his dreams already achieved thanks to his hard work and dedication, Gordon will continue to push himself to the limit to get there.
“Right now, in the last year, I’ve finally started breaking through a little bit. I’ve still got a really long way to go, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel and I think I need to take confidence from that,” says Gordon.
“After all these years of working hard physically and trying to improve myself technically and mentally, it’s really starting to come together.
“If I’ve been able to come this far, there’s no reason that I can’t go even further.”