When Greg Born’s son, David, was in high school, he was a dominant tennis player, mowing through many opponents and, as a sophomore, playing third singles on a team that made it to the state finals.
But when he went off to Bates College, he switched sports to join the nationally ranked men’s squash team there. Though he'd begun playing the sport only two years prior, David was able to transfer some of his tennis skills, something that would be a stretch for most athletes. Perhaps factoring most importantly in his switch was his dedication to academics and a similar commitment to practicing and mastering the new sport. (I know this because David played on a high school tennis team that I coached.)
The Portland Community Squash hopes that this type of academic structure and athletic discipline will give Portland's youngsters a model for success.
Greg Born, Barrett Takesian, and Sandy Spaulding are founding members of the new squash facility on Noyes Street. Within the year, they hope to start a national program called “Urban Squash,” which will teach a specific group of promising but underprivileged local kids. They plan to incorporate the US Squash’s National Urban Squash Education Association, which introduces squash to new players while providing academic support, mentoring and help with college placement.
“I reacquainted with Barrett and Sandy four years ago, having known them through collegiate squash,” said Born, now an assistant coach at Bates College.
The elder Born picked the sport up just over a decade ago, but really made his mark as a table tennis player. He was state champion twice, in 1994 and 1997, and half of a doubles team that won the states six times.
When asked about the move to squash, he says it was a necessity, not a choice as it was with his son.
“They took away our ping-pong tables at the YMCA,” he said. “There was nothing else to play there (besides squash). I got hooked.”
A similar magnetic attraction has already filled the PCS courts in just a few months of operation. The planning of expanding the spread of places to play squash really began in 2008, with efforts to organize the group of players that were already playing the sport.
“When I realized how much it costs to build and open a squash facility, I knew it wouldn’t be something I could do,” Born said. “But we tried to make it so others could come along and see the market opportunity. We focused on growing the sport in hopes that, with greater numbers, someone would recognize the demand.”
There are approximately 20 squash facilities in Maine, but half of these are in private residences, including eight on Mount Desert Island alone.
To create a place that was accessible to kids who wanted to learn the sport, PCS repurposed the former Congregation Shaarey Tphiloh.
PCS is funded with private donations — $1.5 million to buy and renovate — and is a 501(3)c non-profit. The building was purchased in October of last year. PCS was able to open this past January, 98 days of renovations from start to finish. They worked with Wright-Ryan, a local contractor who renovated the main hall and added locker rooms, showers, and a fitness center.
“For a non-profit like us, they were unbelievable to work with,” Born said.
Volunteers worked on the other half of the building. One father/son team knocked down a wall to help create classrooms that are now used for yoga, community meetings, and potluck suppers. A local string quartet practices there.
“We really are an entity that makes our city better. That’s the goal,” Born said. “The focus is primarily on kids, with the mission heavily supported by adult members.”
Memberships are $73 a month for individuals and $113 a month for families. The fee gets you unlimited squash (based on reservations for available courts), use of the gym, including plenty of opportunities to give as well as get.
“Part of the idea of being a member is you’re not just buying the services of an athletic facility. You’re joining a community,” Born said. “Members are encouraged to volunteer their time, helping kids learn squash, wellness, yoga. We want you to be part of academic support sessions and help mentor. We encourage kids to seek a balance between athletics and studies, and to learn things beyond just squash, to be more mindful of their bodies and surroundings.”
PCS has a three-pronged approach. In addition to adult memberships and a junior program, they plan to add “Rally Portland” for students in grades 6-12, modeled after NUSEA (National Urban Squash + Education Association). It’s designed for children whose families are not able to provide much help for them as they approach the college application process. Some of these kids will be the first in their families to even consider college.
“We want to provide academic support and guidance, and a structure,” Born said, “We end up being a liaison between kids, families, and schools to help make sure their homework is done, and assist in areas where they need it.” The long-term hope is that these capable youngsters go to college and return to their communities to become leaders there.
There are also some obvious health benefits to the sport. One has to be fit, strategic, and mindful of his or her surroundings.
“It’s a thinking person’s game,” Born said. “Unlike table tennis, which is ‘twitch reflex,’ squash rallies tend to be longer, especially with higher level players. Some rallies are more than 100 strokes long.”
And it’s a lifetime sport, as Born knows too well. He's faced off against Charlie Butt (for whom a court was dedicated this past weekend) when he was 82 years old. Butt was a member of the Chinese Olympic team in two sports — basketball and swimming. He won 22 national squash titles.
“He’s a legend,” Born said. “I loved playing him. He was twice as old as me at the time, and it was humbling to be on a court with him.”
The PCS center hopes local kids who pick up the sport will find a similar lifetime of fun, health, and the discipline that propels them to realize their own potential.