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Squash for the People

A unique trio of partners launches a sports revolution on the East Side

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Providence, are you aware that we have a world-class squash facility right in our own backyard? Also, are you aware that squash is a fun, accessible sport (similar to racquetball) that anyone can play?

You could be forgiven for not knowing either because a) there’s a common misconception of squash as an elitist sport played only in expensive private clubs, and b) the new Gorgi Family Squash & Education Center at Moses Brown School only opened last December.

The 16,000-square-foot facility, which boasts 12 courts along with classrooms, study space, and a pro shop, is the result of a unique partnership between three organizations: Moses Brown, Nicol Squash Club, and SquashBusters, a sports-based youth development program.

Here’s how the pieces fit together: SquashBusters was founded in Boston in 1996 to use the sport of squash, along with academic support and enrichment and mentoring, to improve educational outcomes and access to opportunities among underserved students in urban school districts. Middle and high school students in the program receive three hours of academic support – including tutoring, SAT prep, and career exploration – per week for 33 weeks of every school year. They also get four hours of squash practice and training for those 33 weeks, free of charge. SquashBusters’ results speak for themselves: their two programs (Boston and Lawrence, MA) served more than 300 students in the 2016–17 school year, those students boasted an average attendance rate of 93.5 percent, and 100 percent of graduating seniors were accepted into college.

When the program began looking to expand into a third city, Providence was a natural fit. SquashBusters found the perfect partner in Moses Brown School, which already boasts a robust squash program with varsity teams. The new facility sits on the school’s campus, and the two organizations share access to the courts for their students.

The third piece of the puzzle is public access. The opening of the Gorgi Center dramatically increased the number of accessible squash courts in Rhode Island, and one of the goals is to increase local interest in the sport. That’s where Nicol Squash Club comes in. It’s a community club that offers easy, affordable access not only to courts, but also lessons, coaching, and league play. The club is operated and directed by Peter Nicol, a world champion player and coach, and he brought in Arthur Gaskin, a five-time Irish national champion, as the club’s resident pro.

Got all that? In short, Providence suddenly finds itself with a major new squash facility and access to two of the top coaches in the world.

For its inaugural class, SquashBusters Providence will serve 28 sixth graders from Del Sesto Middle School. The goal is to add one grade per year so that by 2023 they will be serving students from sixth through twelfth grade. Meanwhile, Nicol Squash Club set a goal of 100 members by the end of the year; they got 140 in their first three weeks.

Of course, for the purposes of this column, it’s the sport that matters. I had never so much as set foot on a squash court (careful, you need special shoes so as not to damage it) and admittedly prejudged it as a luxury sport that Wall Street types use to get out their aggression during lunch break. Not so, says Arthur Gaskin. “The beauty of it is that anyone can play,” he explains. “We want to take away the elitist atmosphere that squash is often associated with.”

He got me out on the court and showed me some of the basics – how to hold the racquet, rules of play, forehands and backhands, etc. – in little more than a half hour. The first thing I learned: squash is fast. It takes just a few volleys to get the heart pumping and the sweat pouring. It’s like a high-intensity cardio workout, but fun instead of torturous.

I managed to acquit myself just well enough for a first timer, returning a few serves (and whiffing a few, too) and even managing to keep a few volleys going. I also passed Arthur’s basic fitness test that he uses in training: the ability to run cross-court 20 times in a minute. While I don’t think I’ll be touring the pro circuit anytime soon, that first lesson was already 100 percent more squash than I ever expected to play in my life. And that’s really the point of all this: bringing squash to the people.

Gorgi Family Squash & Education Center
257 Hope Street