Ivy and Concrete

“Squash is associated with Ivy League schools and expensive athletic clubs,” says Renato Paiva, executive director of Surf City Squash. “But that image is changing. Right now there are 55 colleges in the country [with squash teams]. In five years, with the urban squash movement, there will be more kids playing squash than college squash players.”

The movement to which Paiva refers began 13 years ago when former professional squash player Greg Zaff created SquashBusters, a nonprofit “youth-enrichment program” for underprivileged kids. Like its predecessors, Surf City Squash is based on a three-tier system: academics, community service, and squash.

The ball used in squash is smaller than a racquetball and does not bounce. “In racquetball the ball comes to you. In squash, you’ve got to chase it,” explains Paiva, who was once a squash champion in Brazil.

On Saturday, September 27, and Sunday, September 28, Surf City Squash will host its first team tournament. “We’ll have 16 teams of five players each,” says Paiva. “The number-one player on each team is a professional player, and the number-five is a Surf City Squash kid. The three players in the middle are all adult club members [of San Diego Squash].”

According to Paiva, enlisting the support of club members was difficult at first. “It’s around $110 a month for membership, just for squash. Imagine if you are a member of a squash club, and you start to see poor kids playing there — all the glamour of the sport, it’s not there anymore. They didn’t want to share the courts, didn’t think the kids were good enough. They still don’t allow them to play on open-court times. [Members] liked to be politically correct and donate some money, but ‘Don’t let me see them,’ you know? Now it’s different. Now we have a majority of members who are donors; a lot of members are volunteers. They support every single event we do.”

Students are recruited from Preuss School at University of California San Diego, a college-preparatory charter school. “The good thing about that school,” says Paiva, “is that all of the students are part of a free- or reduced-cost lunch program, which proves they’re underprivileged, and the other criteria to be at that school is that none of their parents could have gone to a four-year college.”

Paiva says the choice of squash over other sports is crucial to furthering his students’ education. “If I did this program with soccer, those kids would have to be a superstar to get into college [on a soccer scholarship]. But as a squash recruit, your chances are so much better.” Prior to joining Surf City Squash, Paiva recruited squash players for Harvard.

Last year, 9 of the 60 students who tried out were accepted for the squash program. “There was this one girl who couldn’t hit the ball, and her grades were just okay,” says Paiva. “This girl was into fighting her peers at school; her behavior with teachers was horrible. Her average grade was a C. For some reason she enjoyed the sport, and now she’s our team captain and earning a 4.0 [GPA].”

“I come from City Heights,” says Reyna Pacheco, the 14-year-old student to whom Paiva refers. “In the apartment I live in, there was nowhere you could sit down if you came to my house. I never had a hundred-dollar racquet or shoes to go in the court.”

Pacheco’s stepfather works in construction, and her mother stays at home to care for her brothers and sister. “As long as I have somewhere to live, something to eat, it’s enough for me,” she says. “But squash is giving me more than that. I’ve gone to Boston and Philadelphia for nationals and summer camp. Before, I never thought I would step on an airplane. For me, it was like a dream come true.”

Pacheco’s friends at school call her a “squash freak,” but, she says, “They respect me.” The biggest change in Pacheco’s life since she began playing squash has been her outlook on time. “Before, I had all this time to go and watch TV and do nothing with my life, but now I spend all my time doing homework or playing squash. I make every minute in my life really worth it.”

Of the community service she must do as part of the program, Pacheco most enjoys feeding the homeless. “We went downtown, and my job was to put food on the plates. I’m really short, but I felt ten feet tall that day.”

— Barbarella

Surf City Squash Tournament
Saturday, September 27
8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Sunday, September 28
8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.
San Diego Squash
9370 Waples Street, Suite 101
Sorrento Valley
Cost: Free, with request for donation
Info: 858-586-1294 or www.surfcitysquash.org

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