The Trinity Reporter Fall 2003
On top of the world
How Trinity came to dominate the national squash championships

by Mark Kindley '69

Bernardo Samper '05 and Suzanne Schwartz '03  

You don’t have to like squash, or even know how it is played, to be impressed by the phenomenon that has occurred in Trinity’s Kellner Squash Center over the last five years. Both the men’s and women’s squash teams have taken the squash world by storm, raising the national level of play to new heights and totally upending the traditional collegiate squash rankings.

The Trinity men’s squash team completed its fifth consecutive undefeated season last winter and retained—also for the fifth consecutive year—its ownership of the Potter Trophy, the College Squash Association (CSA) National Team Championship title.

The Trinity women’s squash team completed its second consecutive undefeated season and retained—for the second time in a row—the Howe Cup, the CSA Women’s National Team Championship title.

Beating Big Ivy

Trinity has been competitive in both men’s and women’s squash for many years, generally finishing respectably somewhere above the middle of the pack of college teams. For most of the time that squash has been played as an intercollegiate sport, Harvard has dominated the competition, grudgingly seeing teams from Yale and Princeton capture occasional titles. Prior to meeting the Trinity College men’s team in 1999, Harvard, for example, had been undefeated on its home court in 17 years. The Trinity men’s team ended Harvard’s streak and has since completely taken over the squash world, turning in an incredible 90-0 record over the last five years. The Trinity women’s team has been undefeated in its last 26 matches. Women’s co-captain Amina Helal ’04 has won the last two CSA Individual Championships. In fact, in her senior year, Helal is inthe unique position of having already won every championship in which she will compete this year.

More than the rankings have been upset by Trinity’s romp. Squash has had a reputation as an elitist sport in the United States. The top players traditionally came from the top prep schools and went on to play for the top Ivy League colleges. By bursting out of the middle of pack and consistently clobbering big Ivy, the Trinity men’s and women’s teams have started to change the whole perception of the game. Not only is it faster, and more physically demanding, as well as more strategic, but also it is more egalitarian, and, definitely, more international.

It turns out that the collegiate U.S. squash world was not nearly so big as it was inclined to think. Trinity men’s squash head coach Paul Assaiante had seen the squash world outside of the U.S. as coach of the United States Men’s and Women’s World Squash Team that competes in the Pan American Games and other international events. Squash may only draw on a relatively elite community of players in the U.S., but in many countries around the world it enjoys a much broader demographic base. International players, as a result, have to be that much more competitive to work their way to the top of their national rankings. Shortly after he started coaching at Trinity in 1994, Assaiante began thinking about what his team could be like if he could reach beyond U.S. borders and draw on the community of international players. In 1996, when then-president Evan Dobelle asked him what he needed to do to win more matches, Assaiante had the answer ready: recruit international players.



Women's squash head coach
Wendy Bartlett


It was not a trivial undertaking. Besides finding prospective young players who would be willing and able to travel to Trinity, he also had to find young athletes who could meet the College’s academic standards. Where financial aid would be required—which would be in most cases—it could not be given unless it was justified academically. With that stipulation, Dobelle approved the recruiting plan and offered this parting comment as Assaiante was leaving his office: “Coach,” Assaiante recalls Dobelle saying, “Don’t screw this up.”

Assaiante didn’t screw it up. That next year, Marcus Cowie ’00, who was the second-ranked junior player in the world at the time, joined the Trinity men’s squash team. When Cowie arrived here from the United Kingdom, the first question that Wendy Bartlett, the women’s squash team head coach, had for him was: “Do you know any girls who might be interested in playing for my team?” Cowie recommended his friend Gail Davie ’00 also from the U.K., and the rest, as they say, is collegiate squash history. Both the men’s and women’s teams began recruiting internationally and each new player who came recommended a friend and/or a competitor.

By the time Amina Helal of Manchester, England, was old enough to think about college, Trinity was known in international squash circles as the place to go. The Trinity men’s and women’s teams today have players from Great Britain, South Africa, Malaysia, India, Colombia, New Zealand, Zimbabwe, Bermuda, Switzerland, Canada, and the United States. “Now, instead of Paul and I beating down the bushes to find kids,” Bartlett says, “kids contact us. They’ve heard that Trinity is a great place to play squash, and they get a great education. It’s the best of both worlds.”

A “team” sport?

There were some significant adjustments to make when Amina arrived in Hartford for the first time in January 2001. International squash players, for one thing, are used to a very high level of independence. At Trinity, Amina says, she was startled to encounter the idea that squash is a “team” sport. Everyone practiced together; competitors supported each other. It was a foreign concept to the international players. American players on the team had to make some significant adjustments, too. Suzanne Schwartz ’03 came from the traditional U.S. squash background. She was a top player at her high school outside of Philadelphia and came to Trinity expecting to be a top player in college. It didn’t work out quite as she imagined it, however. She started out fairly high on the ranking, but lost ground every year as international players joined the team.

Looking back on her four years, she wouldn’t have it any other way. She figures her playing is better than ever because she has consistently played against better players than herself. She also got to play on a team that bowled over bigger competitors, and she made friends from all over the world. After graduation, Suzy will travel to Manchester, England, to spend some time with her good friend Amina—who happens to be currently ranked #1 on the Trinity roster.

Although there has been much muttering in U.S. collegiate squash circles about the number of international students on Trinity’s winning teams, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, in particular, have begun very aggressive international recruiting drives of their own. “The sleeping giants are no longer sleeping,” says Assaiante. “That should make the upcoming season very interesting.”

“The competition is going to get more intense from the other schools” Bartlett says. “That’s what’s going to be our challenge: to keep beating these other schools. We will have a fairly senior team,” she adds. “So that pride is there, and the tradition is there. That’s very important.”

The Harvard and Yale matches scheduled for January will tell just how successful the other teams have been at bolstering their rosters with international players. Harvard and the other big Ivy League schools obviously have the wherewithal to recruit international squash players. What remains to be seen is whether or not they will be able to forge them into a team that can beat Trinity.

That will not be easy. The individual members of a squash team are each exceedingly fit, highly competitive young athletes in a sport that pits one person against another in a very intense contest. That aspect of the game of squash already creates the potential for heated rivalries and jealousies between players. Add to that the potential for cultural conflict between team members from different continents, and the situation can quickly reach flashpoint.


Men's squash head coach
Paul Assaiante

Keeping the peace in the back of the van on the way to some matches would qualify both Assaiante and Bartlett for peacekeeping roles in the United Nations, even some players admit. During the war in Iraq, for example, heated discussions between the American players and their international teammates over the legitimacy of U.S. foreign policy threatened to seriously undo the spirit of team play that both coaches had struggled so hard to impart. “I’m constantly saying, ‘Okay guys, we’re going to have to agree to disagree on this one,’” Assaiante says. “They can really get into it and, at this age, they want to be right. It’s a real psychological balancing act sometimes.”

During the years that Trinity has risen to dominate collegiate squash, the emphasis usually is put on the outstanding performance of individual players. Two outstanding players in their own rights, last year’s men’s team co-captains, Nick Kyme ’03 of Bermuda and Jonny Smith ’03 of the U.K., both suggest, however, there might be another major reason for Trinity’s long-lasting winning streak: the coaches.

“Paul’s the glue,” Kyme says. “We’re all there floating around, but he’s the glue. He doesn’t want us to go play squash because we have to,” he adds. “He wants us to play squash because we want to. And it works.” Kyme’s comments about Paul were echoed by players on the women’s team about Wendy. “Wendy’s great,” says Schwartz. “I’ve loved playing for her for the last four years. She’s just so into getting to know every player and having a personal interest with everyone. I’ve felt as if I could come and talk with her about anything, and she’d be interested and want to know.”

There has been a lot of change in the rosters on both the men’s and women’s teams during the current winning streak. What hasn’t changed, in fact, is the coaching style of Paul Assaiante and Wendy Bartlett, pacing outside the glass, pushing an individual player when he or she needs it, praising them, consoling them, admonishing them, helping them, creating a powerful sense of family among them, and, in the process, causing them to play squash incredibly well.

“Squash is the carrot.”

Trinity’s SquashWise program helps local kids

Squash is an extremely intense individual competition. During a match, there are only two people in the world: you and your competitor.

But there is more to the game than what takes place behind the glass walls of the court. Once the match is over, the world—with its needs and challenges and expectations—is still there, and in fact some of that world could benefit from learning about the focused discipline that is required for success in squash or in the game of life.

For that reason, Trinity squash coaches Paul Assaiante and Wendy Bartlett have found a way to extend the values of good teamwork beyond the courts through the development of SquashWise, an after-school program for high school kids in the neighborhood surrounding Trinity, which is operated in collaboration with the Hartford Boys & Girls Club.

Students are selected by the club and come to the Trinity squash courts three afternoons a week. Before they get one-on-one coaching on the courts, however, they get one-on-one coaching on their homework. “Squash is the carrot,” says Bartlett. “Getting an education is the most important part.”

SquashWise is funded and otherwise supported by the Trinity Squash Club, whose members are drawn from the local business community. Their dues give them access to one of the best squash facilities in New England and also pay for a program director and other operating costs of SquashWise. The first director of SquashWise was Samantha Lewins ’02, a member of the winning Trinity women’s squash team from Zimbabwe. Beyond funding, members of the Trinity Squash Club also contribute their time to join the players as mentors during the afternoon study sessions. “It’s a win/win situation,” Bartlett says. “Everyone benefits.”

Besides improving their grades dramatically, some of the students in the program have become very good squash players. Two earned scholarships to the Nike Squash Camp at Trinity last summer, for example. SquashWise reflects the philosophy of Assaiante that there is more to sports than winning. “There comes a time in the maturity of any successful organization when it’s time to give back,” he says. “We used our wonderful relationship with the Boys & Girls Club to make it possible to give something back to our community.” For the Trinity squash teams, that philosophy is part of how the game of squash is played. And, because it is, the players, the SquashWise students, the Trinity Squash Club, the community, and the game of squash all win, both on and off the courts.

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