By Laura Trevelyan
Laura Trevelyan is an award-winning journalist for the BBC, college squash parent and CitySquash board member.
Squash in the U.S. is at an inflection point. The reckoning over race in America poses tough questions for a traditionally white sport. Some colleges have dropped varsity programs. For squash to grow, justify its place in schools and universities, and be a contender for the Olympics, it must attract players who are more racially and socio-economically diverse. Could the opening of the Arlen Specter US Squash Center this year be the moment for a reset?
Chris Fernandez won’t forget losing his first junior gold tournament match. Then a CitySquash team member from the Bronx, Fernandez was defeated in three, barely winning any points. Afterwards, in the locker room of one of the East Coast’s most prestigious venues, he overheard the two players who had refereed the match making fun of how he played, how he looked, and how he dressed.
Rather than being crushed, Fernandez was motivated. “That’s where my fuel came from. That feeling that I didn’t belong lit the fire,” he explains. “In college, my coach predicted that I would play somewhere between 9 and 13. That freshman fall I finished playing top 4.” And the rest is history. Fernandez led the St. Lawrence team to three top ten rankings and a national championship finals appearance, and now, aged 27, he’s the head squash coach at Dickinson College.
Whereas the casual locker room racism Chris Fernandez experienced spurred him on, Zoe Russell had a very different reaction when she played club squash at Bucknell University. The team was student-run, and most of the other players were white, from affluent backgrounds, and made no effort to include their Black teammate or ask about her background. “It drained my passion for the sport,” said Russell, who had fallen in love with squash as a seventh grader joining the SquashBusters program in Boston. “It got to the point where it wasn’t interesting to me. My squash game actually went up when I wasn’t on the team.”
A bus ride back from a tournament came to encapsulate Russell’s feeling of being from a different world to her teammates. “Alcohol was involved, “ recalls Russell, who doesn’t drink, “and it was spilled and seeped into my bag. As far as I knew, my teammates all had resources for squash gear. I had only one bag, and for the rest of college it was stained with a drink that I don’t even enjoy.”
Now at Harvard Law School, Russell, aged 25, is still playing squash – and once again she’s building community around a sport she loves, just as she did at SquashBusters, but couldn’t do at Bucknell.
The reckoning over race in America following the death of George Floyd has been thought provoking for Russell, for Fernandez, and for so many squash players and coaches of color. “Since George Floyd, I’ve been more inclined to speak out,” Fernandez said. “Playing squash as a Dominican male in the Bronx, I was learning to conform. Now, I’m comfortable speaking about race.”
It’s a long overdue conversation that squash, like the rest of America, is now having. Ned Edwards, Executive Director of the Arlen Specter US Squash Center in Philadelphia, sees this moment – where the pandemic collides with the quest for racial justice – as a perfect storm opportunity.
“The last twelve months have shown with increasing clarity that US Squash’s core mission must be to advance broad community engagement across the entire socio-economic spectrum. It’s the right way to meaningfully grow the sport and to stay relevant to the overall missions on school and college campuses,” Edwards said. He sees the primary focus of the Specter Center, as new showcase for American squash, as “broad community access with intentional, persistent engagement efforts and pathways to excellence so players can become great – not just good.”
While coaches and players have questions about what this commitment from US Squash will look like in practice – it’s a welcome move, especially as college squash is at a crossroads. As Pat Cosquer, head coach at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, sees it, squash must diversify or die. “We’re in a fight for our existence, and the relationship between U.S. junior squash and the College Squash Association are inextricably linked with respect to this conversation,” said Cosquer, noting that Brown, Stanford and George Washington universities all dropped their varsity teams last summer. “If you continue to reduce the number of college squash options as the holy grail of junior squash players, where is our sport headed in America?”
Cosquer is one of the few Black college coaches. Having played for Bates College and then coached there for eleven years, the forty-five-year-old can see all too clearly the bind his sport is in. “Squash doesn’t count as much as other non-revenue college sports because we aren’t NCAA sanctioned,” Cosquer explains. “So if we aren’t a revenue-driven sport, and our results don’t count towards the Learfield IMG College Directors’ Cup for our respective institutions, then we’re just spending the school’s money, in one way or another. And if the team has a bunch of full-pay, rich, white kids and they aren’t necessarily contributing towards fundraising or the institution’s endowment, then you get into a situation where college admissions says, ‘we can get those thirty kids from our regular applicant pool anyway – so why are we still paying for squash?’”
It’s the harsh reality confronting college athletics departments across America. Why keep squash, if it doesn’t make money and isn’t widely played? Even though later retracted by the magazine, The Atlantic article caricaturing the worst excesses of junior squash hardly helped. Although forry-one percent of college squash players identify as people of color, much of that is driven by the recruitment of international players. Yet Tim Wyant, executive director of the Squash and Education Alliance, says the makeup of college teams has changed meaningfully. “Over the past fifteen years, more than 150 students from communities like Roxbury, Harlem, Chicago’s South Side and North Philadelphia have played on varsity squash teams, and more than fifty do today,” said Wyant, pointing out that squash presents “a uniquely powerful tool for first-generation students to attend selective four-year colleges.”
For Losangela Batista, who joined SquashBusters in Boston as a seventh grader and went on to co-captain the St. Lawrence team, the answer to college squash’s diversity problem is obvious. Coaches have to recruit more imaginatively. “I want college squash coaches to give us a chance, and to believe in us,” said Batista, who is now coaching at SquashBusters, inspiring students with the power of her example as the first Black woman on the St. Lawrence team. “So many kids from urban squash programs don’t have that much access to courts. Or to private lessons. I improved so much during freshman year at college because I had access to courts and coaching.”
It’s a point echoed by Fernandez. “As a coach, you have to be willing to take a chance on a player – make sure your team culture is accepting, and know that once a kid is on a college team, you’ll have that 24/7 access to courts,” he points out.
Guillermo Moronta, who was in the first graduating class from SquashBusters, and played at Bates College, concurs. Now the associate director of admissions at Tabor Academy and the first director of squash there, Moronta, aged thirty-seven, said, “Colleges that are dropping squash are missing out on the potential of the urban squash movement.”
All eyes are on the new flagship home for US Squash when it comes to driving change in the sport and setting the tone. Cosquer, who also served as director of squash programs at StreetSquash, would like to see top urban squash players training at the Specter Center every chance they get. “And are you creating spaces for high-level coaches of color, so kids can see and be inspired by someone who looks like them?” he asks, noting the direct and intentional efforts that tennis, skiing, lacrosse and crew have made to diversify their membership and develop new and better talent.
Edwards says when the Specter Center opens this year, it will rise to the challenge of broadening access to the sport – and beyond. “This is the vision that John Fry, Drexel’s President, imagined when he looked at the best use for the magnificent Armory building in the heart of the university’s campus,” Edwards said. The Specter Center also sits in the West Philadelphia Promise Zone, one of twenty-two nationwide that serve urban, rural and tribal areas. “The very location is emblematic of US Squash’s commitment to its mission,” said Edwards, who has worked on the Specter Center’s vision for four years. “We want people in the community to feel this is their center. If we’re going to grow the game and get the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee to look at us as an impactful sport that’s played in the community – then this has to be job number one.”
If US Squash and its partners are successful in broadening access to the sport nationwide, moving beyond the narrow focus of the urban squash programs, Edwards sees that as the most compelling feature of squash’s bid for inclusion in the 2028 Los Angeles Olympic Games. “Squash erases barriers better than any other sport,” Edwards said. “Simply by getting in a box with another player, and swinging a racquet a few inches away from them, you build respect and trust.”
Moronta agrees that squash is the great leveler: “Two people from different backgrounds, knocking the ball around and leaving it all on the court – it’s cliché, but squash is an equalizer.” An optimist for the sport’s future, Moronta sees an opportunity for emerging varsity programs like Chatham University in Pittsburgh. And he’s hopeful that prominent historically Black colleges and universities may before too long add squash teams – which could be transformative for the college game.
Fernandez tries to embody diversity in his efforts as a college coach. “Here you have fifteen players from all over the world, with a common goal. Being the very best version of themselves on and off the court. That’s the beauty of college squash,” he says.
Fernandez has come a long way from the kid at the Canterbury school in Connecticut who when asked why his hair was different, brushed off the question. “At college, one of the kids didn’t believe I was a squash recruit. He thought I was a basketball player or a rapper,” Chris remembers. “Back then, I used to let those things go. I used to be hesitant to say I was Black. Now, I’ve embraced it.”
The past year has brought so much into sharp relief – and squash is no exception. The challenge is clear: for the leaders of squash to seize this moment, embrace a changing America, and thrive as a result. The roadmap to becoming an Olympic sport is hiding in plain sight.