Game Changer

Game ChangerGame ChangerGame ChangerGame Changer

S quash is a lot like tennis, only… squashed. The court is less than a third the size, and instead of having separate sides, opponents have to share every inch of the playing surface. The time between shots is condensed, with the ball bouncing back from a wall, not sailing over a net. And where tennis makes no rule against hitting shots as high as you like, the squash wall features an “out line” reining in strikes over 15 feet.

Plus, the ball itself is smaller, and much softer: it really squashes up when you hit it. (Turns out that’s how the sport got its name. Now you know.)

Last week, I didn’t know squat about squash, except perhaps this: “It’s historically been a very elitist sport in the U.S.” Those are the words of Julie Greenwood, who played both squash and tennis in college, and who looks like she can still hold her own on either court.

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Greenwood is the executive director of Squash Haven, an organization that’s doing its part to open the game up to non-traditional participants. But that’s really just a side benefit. The nonprofit’s primary objective is to guide its young enrollees, comprised of 5th through 12th graders “from about 18 different New Haven public schools,” she says, to richer lives now and in the future, with matriculation into a four-year college as the ultimate guidepost. It does that through an intriguing mix of athletic, scholastic and character development, opening doors to acceptance, maybe even scholarships, from prep schools and colleges through athletic training; providing academic tutoring as needed, including intensive prep for the SAT; and instilling values undergirding every aspect of the program, reflected in its core mantra: “strive, learn, succeed.”

Which is exactly what Squash Haven’s been doing since it started in 2007, when a small initial class of 5th graders applied and got accepted. Each year since, a new crop of students has been added to the roster, with enrollment hitting 100 this year. Now seven years in, Greenwood notes with a touch of pride that Squash Haven’s first brood has recently left the nest, and with a 100% college acceptance rate.

A full-time staff of six, aided by a 23-person board of directors and volunteers including members of the Yale squash team, works out of Yale’s Payne Whitney Gym, where, most days after school (and over the summer as well), kids in different age groups get the SH treatment. One evening last week, a mentor led a group of kids, ages 10 to 13, through the kind of character-building exercise that works so much magic at sleep-away summer camps, asking individuals what they were thankful for at that moment. “I’m grateful for my best friend, who I can tell anything,” said one. “I appreciate that the bus brings me anywhere I need to go,” said another.

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On a different floor, life was quieter for a group of high school underclassmen, studying around a long conjoined table in the gym’s high-ceilinged, case-lined trophy room featuring shelf after shelf of shiny monuments to victory. A Squash Haven staff member was roaming, helping when needed or requested.

And of course, elsewhere in the building, there were kids getting ready to play some squash, fortunate to do so in the world-class climes of Payne Whitney’s Brady Squash Center. In it, 15 courts, including one with three glass walls and another with four, are packed together in columns beneath a large second-floor catwalk.

At one end, a star player named Osuman Imoro, who’s been ranked as high as #13 in the nation within his under-17 age bracket—one of many Squash Haveners achieving national rankings—squared off against another of the program’s excellent players. Their long racquets whooshed around the court, stretching to catch low balls they’d seemed sure to miss, each mixing up hard and soft shots to try to surprise their opponent. Anytime a shot hit on or above the 15-foot out line, or on or below another line about a foot and a half off the ground, the other player won a point. Likewise, if a ball bounced more than once along the ground following a legal strike, the striker added another point to his tally. (See the full rules here.)

It’s a fast, crafty sport, where environmental constraints can be used to great advantage or disadvantage, and where agility, acceleration and strategic thinking are major assets.

Sounds a lot like life, no?

Squash Haven
70 Tower Pkwy, New Haven (map)
(203) 464-8644
www.squashhaven.org

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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Dan has worked for a couple of major media companies, but he likes Daily Nutmeg best. As DN’s editor, he writes, photographs, edits and otherwise shepherds ideas into fully realized feature stories, helped in no small part by a small team of dedicated contributors.

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