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A Preppy Sport Comes To The Inner City


San Diego Squash.

— Coach Renato Paiva shouts above the din at the San Diego Squash Club to help Ana Rodriguez and Eric Huynh polish their game. The ball caroms around the enclosed court that's stained on all walls with black ball strikes. Finally, a corner shot falls short of one player's racket and the point is won.

Eric and Ana attend the Preuss School and they are members of a squash team that will represent San Diego at the high-school championships at Yale. Eric, a high school junior, says he started playing squash three years ago. Before that, he just thought that squash was a vegetable.

"The closest I knew to it was racquetball,” he said. When I asked him why he took to it, he said, “I think it was the physical ability you need to play it. It was really competitive. I'm really competitive."

Squash is a prep-school game. But some of its best players are trying to bring it to low-income urban kids. In San Diego, the Access Youth Academy has formed a partnership with the Preuss School, which accepts only kids who are eligible for free lunch, and whose parents did not attend college. And now their girl's team has qualified for the high school nationals at Yale.

Renato Paiva is one of those squash players who’s bringing squash to the streets. He’s executive director of Access Youth Academy and one of the coaches of its team. He was a top competitive player and he served as an assistant coach at Harvard. Paiva said at Yale his team will be up against the top teams in the country.

"All the big prep schools on the East Coast...they spend a lot of money developing those programs. And here we are in sunny San Diego bringing a team to play in that enormous tournament, " Paiva said.

The National Urban Squash and Education Association sponsors the San Diego squash program. As its name suggests, it aims to develop academic skills as well. When I arrived at the squash club, half of the team members sat at a table with school books and a tutor, as they awaited their time on the court. Paiva said squash could give these kids a shot at admission to Ivy League schools.

"Most of our kids come from difficult socio-economic backgrounds,” said Andrew Holets, development director of Access Youth Academy. “And we think we provide an opportunity to succeed through academics. Also through squash, which is a completely different sport they really wouldn't be playing squash on the streets of San Diego."

I played squash back in the days when dinosaurs trod the earth and the Grand Canyon wasn't nearly so deep. I played with a hard ball. But the standard squash ball is small and soft. It takes low bounces and requires the players to move all around the court, chasing fast caroms and drop shots. Yan Liu, who'll compete in the Yale tournament, says her favorite shot is the drop volley, which you hit in the air, not off the bounce.

"But you have to hit a drop which is low, and you really have to be precise about it. I think I can manage that shot well, so I like to do that,” said Yan. “When you hit the ball and get a really good winner out of it, you feel really good about yourself."

Squash is still a preppy game and it's still very East Coast. Paiva said there are no more than two squash clubs in LA. At Harvard, he said they have 50 courts on campus alone. But things are changing, in San Diego at least.

"San Diego squash has been growing rapidly,” said Paiva. “Bishop (School) has a squash team now. Francis Parker School is putting in a squash program. And access youth academy has been in San Diego squash for the past four years. So squash is actually picking up very fast here in San Diego."

Preuss Kids Practice Squash

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