Trinity Club Brings Together Lovers Of The Game From Around The World
December 17, 2006
By KATHLEEN MEGAN, Courant Staff Writer
Of all the places in Hartford where people of various cultures gather, there may seem to be none so unlikely as a warren of box-like cells hidden in the recesses of a labyrinthine building in Barry Square.
Yet on a daily basis, Hartford-area residents who hail from 12 countries make their way up the three flights of stairs at Trinity College's Ferris Athletic Center to slap a soft, rubbery ball using a willowy long-handled racket. And that's not even counting Trinity's own champion varsity squash players, who among them represent at least nine countries.
Wish Hartford were a more cosmopolitan place? Maybe you should take up squash.On a given day, a member of the Trinity Squash Club might play someone from Pakistan or Egypt or Norway or New Zealand or Argentina, and the list goes on. While it can be argued that in the heat of a squash match, there isn't much time for cultural exchange, squash club members like Joe Lardner of West Hartford would disagree.
The international ethos of the squash scene at Trinity is "a big draw for me," said Lardner, who plays several times a week. "I'm much more interested in talking to people there," he said, partly because it immerses him in a world beyond "the old mighty whities."
For decades, squash in the U.S. has been mainly that: a sport of the elite, played chiefly at prep schools, certain colleges and old-school country clubs. But that isn't how it is around the world, says Paul D. Assaiante, the coach of the Trinity men's team who has drawn international players to his varsity team, shaping a squash force that has been national champions eight times.
In many countries, Assaiante said, there are government-supported clubs that include squash among many options for recreation. "In Cairo, there is a squash club on every corner," he said. In England, the squash clubs include a bar with drinks and snacks on the premises for after- and between-game socializing.
Assaiante and Wendy Bartlett, coach of the Trinity women's squash team, also one of the best in the country, started the squash club five years ago because of all the requests they were getting from local residents for a chance to play, including many transplants from places where squash is big.
When they started it, they had no idea they would end up with what some have called "a mini-United Nations."
"It started with five friends," said Assaiante. "The next thing we knew, people in Hartford from all over the world" were gravitating toward the club.
Hassam Badr, who moved to the United States from Egypt on Sept. 7, 2001, said he enjoys the club greatly. "I get to know people who otherwise I never would have met," he said. "You blend so quickly with people who speak another language."
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is a huge fan of squash, Assaiante said, and that's partly why there are so many squash courts there and why the Egyptian team is No. 1 in the world.
If there is a difference between the playing styles of Americans and Middle Easterners, Badr said, he thinks that speed and agility are emphasized in the States, while skill and craft are emphasized in the Middle East.
Also, in Egypt, he said, there is a huge social aspect to playing squash. The courts are usually part of a health club offering lots of other sports as well. Often kids and their families hang around the club, chatting and socializing. In the U.S., he said, people going to a health club are more likely to exercise and then go right home. At Trinity, he often does relax and chat after a game.
Phil del Giudice also misses the stronger social aspect of squash-playing in his native England, but he was glad to find the Trinity Squash Club. Years ago, he said, squash in England, like in the U.S., was primarily for the upper class. However, in the 1980s, government-subsidized leisure centers that included squash courts became very popular and so increased the prevalence of squash. There also were more women in England who played squash recreationally, perhaps partly, del Giudice said, because it was so social. (The Trinity Squash Club is almost all men at this point but would welcome more women members, Bartlett said.)
"I used to play squash every Sunday. I'd shower, change and have lunch at the bar," said del Giudice, who came to the U.S. eight years ago and now lives in Glastonbury.
In America, he said, the priorities are different. "They don't have time to socialize. It's work, work, work."
But many of the squash club members say they don't see much in the way of cultural differences among the players, which is probably part of the point. ("As long as they can play squash, they could all be from Brooklyn, as far as I'm concerned," said Jeff Blomstedt, a club member who commutes from Greenfield, Mass.)
However, like Badr, Lardner sees some small differences. The American players, he said, have more of a "football mentality, more aggressiveness," while those from the rest of the world often seem more interested in technique, grace and strategy.
A difference in style also came up when Bartlett decided a few years ago to give members handicaps to make matches more competitive. However, she found that the players from the Mideast would hassle her - albeit with twinkling eyes - complaining that their handicaps were impossibly high. By contrast, she said, those from Norway and England were strictly stiff-upper-lip on the subject. The difference in approach - perhaps because haggling in the marketplace is an accepted practice in the Mideast - made Bartlett smile, but eventually she dropped the practice to avoid the headaches.
Another aspect of the squash club - which now numbers more than 100 at $400 per membership - is the flourishing relationship between the college team and the club members. At almost every home game, a healthy group of club members shows up for support. "It's our built-in fan club," said Bartlett.
At times, club members have invited team members to their homes, given career advice and even helped them find internships.
When varsity team player Based Ashfaq of Pakistan was making plans to come to Trinity, he received e-mails from Anjum Majeed, a club member from the same region in Pakistan. "He gave me good advice," said Ashfaq, who was concerned about the differences between the Pakistani and American systems of education. Ashfaq enjoys the occasional chance now to chat with Majeed in his native Punjabi.
Shaun Johnstone, a junior from Zimbabwe, said it's interesting to hear club members talk about life outside academia. "They talk about how they had a tough day at work. They have different issues," said Johnstone.
And, he added, "They see it as a privilege to play with us. ... They don't expect us to do it; they enjoy it."
It's a privilege that can take a toll. Eliot Gersten, one of those club members, said that after warming up with a team player, "you walk out and you need a respirator, and they are just getting started."
But, Gersten said, it's far more fun to be around the kids at Trinity "as opposed to being around old people at Hartford Golf Club. There's a whole different energy level here. ... And where else can you play where the world's top coach stops by and says, `That's not the way you should be moving in the court'?"
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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