The game of squash is gaining ground in Portland.
On a Thursday night in August, a blonde girl named Lucy Moseley walks onto a squash court at the Portland YMCA. She’s 16 years old and visiting from Philadelphia with her family. A few seconds later, she’s playing squash against a man three times her age, a man she’s never met before and is unlikely to ever see again. The ball passes back and forth, flying parallel to the side walls for several hits before Lucy scores a point, sending the small piece of black rubber crosswise toward a corner. Her opponent nods to her in appreciation before retrieving the ball and continuing the game.
Next door, a small boy in an oversized Three Stooges t-shirt takes tips from a tall man in his fifties. As he teaches this young athlete, Greg Born moves with the slowness of a dancer, swooping his racket close to the floor and bringing it up in one sweeping arc. The boy watches quietly, filling away Born’s instructions for later use. Nearby, a group of players watches and waits their turns. They’re young and old, thin and heavy, short and tall. Some of them are clearly old friends, but others are strangers who, like Moseley, popped in for a quick game, hoping they’d be welcome on the courts.
This is not what I expected from Maine Squash.
The sport was invented in the 1830s by students at the Harrow School in London, and has traditionally been viewed by Americans as a purely upper-crust experience. (There was, for example, a beautiful squash court available to first-class passengers on the Titanic.) According to Born, who founded Maine Squash eight years ago, this is an outdated impression of the sport. He’s been working to make squash more accessible to the general public, and judging by the scene on this sweltering night (the two courts at the YMCA are not air conditioned), his efforts are paying off.
“Everyone in the local community knows Greg and appreciates all he’s done to make this a really welcoming club,” says Kenneth Farber, a local attorney who plays squash nearly every day during the winter. In addition to the Thursday night drop-in clinics, which are open to the public, Born runs mainesquashleague.com, a website dedicated to promoting the sport in the Pine Tree State, and several squash leagues, including a year-round box league and a woman’s box league, in which players are assigned a “box,” or a group of four to eight players who are of roughly the same level. Born also serves as a point person for Portland Community Squash, a local program created to make the game available to everyone, and promote educational opportunities. During the academic year, he is the assistant squash coach at Bates College. “College squash is among the higher-level sports played throughout the state,” Born explains. “The Bates program consistently finishes in the top 15 to 18 teams in the country on both the men’s and the women’s side. And those rankings include all the Ivies and Division One schools.”
Born himself wasn’t a college squash player (although that’s when many people get introduced to the sport). A college basketball player and Maine State table-tennis champion who picked up the game in his mid-forties, he says one of the reasons he loves the game is because it provides an opportunity for older players to excel. “Squash is tremendous fun partially because there’s a real equity between players,” he says. “In tennis, if one person is slightly better, they will win more matches. In squash, there’s always an opportunity for other factors to play in—strategy, executing a new shot, or even deceiving your opponent.” Squash is also easy on the joints. There are few jarring movements in the game—players aren’t jumping in the air or hitting the ball with great force, which means there are fewer opportunities for injury than in basketball, baseball, or even running.
“It’s an efficient and low-impact sport,” Born adds. “Strategy is such a huge part of the game, which means there’s a mental toughness that goes along with it. From a physical point of view, you’re working very, very hard. But you also have to be able to think at a high level. It’s like aerobic chess.” And as in chess, players are continually trying to find ways to outwit their opponents, seeking shots that will bounce the ball at just the right angle, sending it inches out of reach.
Not only can squash hone the mind, giving players a better sense of spatial awareness, but it also requires a certain amount of give and take between players. “Squash is a very polite sport,” says Ben Freeman, who learned to play while attending Cornell University. “In our matches, points often come down to a gentleman’s agreement, since we don’t have a referee.” Players have to know where their opponent is on the court at all times, and often, they’re required to step out of the way, ceding space in order to avoid a collision.
Mental toughness and politeness—these are two qualities that Born hopes to pass on to the next generation of squash players, both through his work at Bates and a brand new urban squash program based in Portland. “The way it works is that we identify between 15 and 20 kids and work with them from sixth grade throughout high school. Squash acts as the carrot, the reward,” he explains. “Squash and good behavior are coupled with intensive academic support and mentoring to help them progress. We’ll leverage their potential and turn that into community opportunity.” Ideally, these young athletes will continue playing squash, but that’s not really the point. The goal is to offer underprivileged kids new opportunities for personal growth.
As the Portland Community Squash program grows to accommodate new players, so must the facilities. Although the YMCA has been “incredibly good for community building,” as Farber explains, Born has bigger plans. He is currently working to raise money to purchase the former Shaarey Tphiloh synagogue on Noyes Street and convert it, creating Maine’s only publically accessible regulation-sized courts. It’s just one of his many squash-based passion projects (he’s also developed and sold software to provide digital signs, including scoreboards, that improve the specator experience), but Born seems to have boundless enthusiasm for his favorite sport.
“I’m not letting myself get too giddy about the move just yet,” he says. While the purchase of the synagogue will certainly help grow Portland squash, some players are sad to see their time at the YMCA come to an end. “Going to the Y all the time, and playing squash every day, I’ve gotten to see what an incredible, diverse community there is in Portland,” says Farber. It was through his association with squash that Farber met a man from Burundi who inspired him to become involved in pro-bono asylum work. That one encounter introduced him to other new Mainers, whom Farber has worked to welcome into the Greater Portland community.
“Sports can bring people together,” Born says. “Seeing these young kids on the court—they’re going to be amazing squash players someday.” And with the help of Born, Farber, and the other mentors, they will be amazing members of the community, too.