One by one, they emerged from the squash court on Tyee Street in Soldotna on Sunday.
Beaten. Bone-tired. But beaming.
For two hours, the middle-aged woman inside the glass-backed court took on all comers — five men and one woman.
Sometimes, after covering an opponent in sweat and defeat, she’d merely hang out the door, look around, and pluckily ask, “Who’s next?”
Other times, she’d momentarily hop outside and give advice. “A squash backhand is like throwing a Frisbee,” and, “You have to know the rules before you can break them.”
To understand how this was happening, one must understand who that woman is — Sarah Fitz-Gerald, a five-time world champion squash player from Melbourne, Australia. Just as importantly, one must understand squash.
The Babe Ruth of squash
Soldotna is not a hotbed of squash. Soldotna’s Gary Schoenrock, who converted the Tyee racquetball court to a squash court about four years ago, said there are only eight regular players in the area.
And yet most of those eight got a chance to casually hit around with one of the most revered names in squash.
“This is like playing Babe Ruth,” Schoenrock said. “She is that well-known in squash.
“Maybe that’s not the best person to use. It’s more like Roger Federer.”
Fitz-Gerald, 42, won the World Open in 1996, 1997, 1998, 2001 and 2002. In 2001 and 2002, she was at the pinnacle of her sport, also winning the British Open and Australian Open. She threw in a gold medal in the Commonwealth Games in 2002.
At her peak, she was named the Australian Female Athlete of the Year in 2001 and 2002. In 2002, she won Australia’s prestigious Dawn Fraser Award, which takes into account achievement on the international sporting stage as well as character and contributions to the community. She has said she was surprised to beat out names like Ian Thorpe and Lleyton Hewitt.
Fitz-Gerald now tours the world to promote and coach squash, and that’s what brought her to the United States on June 9.
After seeing the top sights in Arizona, she and her husband, Cameron Dalley, flew to The Lawrenceville School near Princeton, New Jersey, for two weeks of clinics at the 10 courts at the prep school.
And then came the detour to Alaska.
Squash has its aficionados, but it will never be mistaken for the world’s most popular sport.
Dalley says the sport doesn’t play well on television and also can only draw limited crowds around the small courts. These two factors combined to bring down the popularity of squash in Australia after its heyday in the 1980s and 1990s.
According to Dalley, only the top 10 men’s players and top three women’s players can really make a living playing the sport.
“Nobody plays squash to get rich,” Dalley said. “They play it for the love of the sport.”
Fitz-Gerald is an example of that. The joy she displayed teaching and playing with recreational players in Soldotna can’t be faked.
“I’m passionate about the sport,” she said. “I played it growing up. Men and older players helped me learn, so I enjoy giving back to the sport.”
The game is played in over 100 countries, but it is not an Olympic sport. Dalley said squash’s boosters are hoping that will change for 2020.
“Many feel that may be the magic bullet to get squash out of the shadows and into the light,” he said.
Dalley said the two weeks of clinics show the sport is gaining popularity on the East Coast. In 2007, The New York Times said there had been a 20 percent spike in players under 18 in the United States in the last two years. The article noted that a high percentage of the nation’s most prestigious schools have squash, and that for some teens it could mean a leg up in getting admitted to those schools.
But the squash community remains a small one — a group of “squashies,” according to Fitz-Gerald.
A noted part of that community is Mark Alger, an Alaskan Airlines pilot. Alger won the U.S. National Championships (amateur) in 1981. In 1999, he moved to Palmer and decided to build the only regulation squash court in the state of Alaska.
The Anchorage, Juneau, Ketchikan and Soldotna courts are all converted racquetball courts, meaning they are 1 foot too narrow.
Fitz-Gerald knew Alger and, eight years ago, came up to visit the cozy court built on his own property. When she found out Alger was moving out of state and having a goodbye barbecue at the court, she decided to bring Dalley on his first trip to Alaska. They arrived June 30.
The lure of the Kenai Peninsula
Schoenrock jumped on the opportunity. After all, he definitely qualifies as a squashie. He started playing in 1974.
“I moved here five years ago, and within a year I produced a squash court,” he said. “It was a racquetball court. In order to make it a squash court, I bought the building.”
The Kenai Peninsula is a tough sell in many times of the year, but not in July. Would Fitz-Gerald and Dalley like to come down, see some glaciers and bears, and play a little squash?
Of course they would.
“I got the true Alaska experience, and I just had to hit around with these guys,” Fitz-Gerald said.
Dalley and Fitz-Gerald flew with squashie Gregg Motonago of Soldotna to Tuxedni Bay across Cook Inlet and saw a bunch of brown bears. The couple drove to Homer to see the sights there.
Next, Schoenrock took the couple to Seward, where they saw the fireworks before spending four nights on Schoenrock’s sailboat. The trip included glaciers, kayaking and whales.
Then it was back to Soldotna for the Sunday squash contest, before beginning the flight back to Australia on Monday.
Chess on a racquetball court
In that Sunday match, how did Fitz-Gerald thoroughly exhaust those six players in two hours while barely breaking a sweat herself?
That takes an understanding of squash. And for someone new to the game, Sunday was a great place to understand squash.
Just as one understands hockey better by watching a group of former NHL players whip some local adult all-stars, or one understands orchestral music better by watching a local orchestra compared to the Philadelphia Orchestra, the nuances of squash were apparent while watching a world champion whip up on recreational players.
Squash is played on a court that is similar to a racquetball court, but it is definitely not racquetball.
Start with the ball. Schoenrock said a racquetball dropped from eye level will bounce back up to the chest. A squash ball will bounce up to the shins.
“In racquetball, the ball will bounce to you,” Schoenrock said. “In squash, you have to go get the ball.”
And go get the ball. And go get the ball.
In racquetball, players can hit the ball as low off the front wall as they want, leading to kill shots. In squash, there is a line on the front wall 17 inches up from the floor. Below that line is known as the tin. Hit it too low, and you lose the point.
“There are no kills,” said Soldotna’s Ed Schmitt. “You have to convince yourself every ball is coming back.”
Thus, the chess element. In the middle of the court, two lines intersect to form a “T.” The strategic goal is to control that “T.”
Hit shots high and deep to the corners. Grind your opponent down by making him or her chase. Make it so all your opponent can do is lob balls right back to your awaiting racket at the “T.”
And once the time is right, once all the pieces are in place, it’s time to end this chess game. But not a moment too soon.
“When you hit too big, or try to make too much happen, that’s when bad things happen,” Schmitt said.
Just like a golf swing — only the ball is moving and there are walls
Of course, placing the ball precisely, time after time, involves considerable technique.
Fitz-Gerald’s is impeccable.
“In one match, she could still play in the top five in the world right now,” Dalley said. “She won’t say it, but I will,”
Dalley said the reason for his assertion is that Fitz-Gerald’s technique is so good.
With the efficient footwork and calm way Fitz-Gerald swept the ball out of the most awkward of positions Sunday — and still sent it high and deep into the corner — it was hard to argue with Dalley.
Brendan Costello, of Eagle River, was one of those who learned the game under Alger in Palmer. He developed an interest in squash when he studied in England at 19. He started learning under Alger five years ago.
“I learned that I was doing everything wrong,” Costello said.
At one point, Dalley and Costello spent about five minutes talking about the intricacies of grip as if they were Harvey Penick and Davis Love III on a golf range.
That’s no mistake.
“Everything you have to do in your swing, you have to do in golf,” Costello said. “Except there are walls.”
Just like a golf swing, or a throwing motion in baseball, squash is all about the kinetic chain. Build up energy in the core and pass it progressively to lighter and lighter parts of the body, exponentially increasing velocity.
The hips, the abdomen, the shoulder, the elbow. Whap!
Amateurs leak power in the hips, the core, the wrist. With Fitz-Gerald, there is no wasted motion. All energy created goes into the ball.
Think golf. A duffer in golf can exert all the energy in the world and hit a drive 215 yards. A pro looks to expend little energy and the ball explodes off the club face, flying 315.
“I haven’t played golf in a while,” Costello said. “But when I hit a good shot here, it’s exactly like what it felt when I hit a golf ball right.”
Step off the court, burn fat for 20 hours
So now the reasons for the ease with which Fitz-Gerald bounced through two hours of play becomes apparent.
Imagine sitting 100 yards away from a green with Tiger Woods with a pyramid of balls. You each take a shot. Whoever is farthest from the pin has to sprint 10 feet away, touch the ground, and sprint back. You hit the balls again, and again, and again.
You get the picture of how this would become disaster for the recreational golfer almost immediately.
For starters, Fitz-Gerald is a world-class athlete that is not at the peak of her conditioning, but she’s also not far from a world-class level. Dalley said she would have a hard time grinding through two- or three-day events on a constant basis, but would be fine in a single world-class match.
In 2010, she helped lead Australia to a title in the Women’s World Teams Squash Championships. She will coach the Australians this year, and Dalley said many would like her to be a player-coach, but she has not decided yet.
Compare this to those she was playing. Many are doctors, whose main task in life is to heal the sick, not keep the body in top-flight shape for squash.
Pile on top of this conditioning deficit Fitz-Gerald’s technique. She spends far less energy hitting a ball.
Pile on top of this her supreme accuracy and supreme instinct as to where each shot should be hit. Sure, games are only to 11. But there are no aces on the serve. There are no kill shots. Mostly, there was Fitz-Gerald at the “T,” and the other player chasing.
This adds up to oxygen debt for the recreational player rather quickly.
It also explains why squash is such a great workout.
“It’s one of the most grueling games you can play,” Dalley said. “They say you burn fat for the next 20 hours after you play a game.”
Schoenrock compared the workout to cross-country skiing, which he did in his first winter in Alaska before turning to squash three or four nights a week.
“In Alaska, this is a great winter sport,” he said. “The days are dark, but you can come in here and it’s light. And you get some great exercise.”
Costello said squash is even harder than cross-country skiing.
“Cross-country skiing and running are rhythmic,” Costello said. “You can pace yourself.
“You can’t pace yourself in a rally. You end up pushing yourself farther than you would normally go.”
The challenge of the game sustained the recreational players. They wouldn’t look too tired on the court, but once they came off, they would collapse onto a bench or lean exhausted on a wall, bursting into sweat. The adrenaline waning, the thrill of the chase over, their bodies had debt to pay off.
What’s next for squash in the area?
Schmitt has been playing the game since he was 12. Even with that lifetime of experience, he said he received five or six tips from Fitz-Gerald that he had never heard before and he thinks will improve his game immensely.
“This group is interested in playing better,” Schmitt said. “To have the best in the world tell you what you can do better is spectacular.”
Fitz-Gerald said the value of playing against her is simple. Say a player has a flaw in technique or an error in strategy. Playing at the recreational level, a player can get away with those flaws and never get punished.
Play against Fitz-Gerald, and those flaws become glaring.
It’s like when pitchers compare the minor leagues to the major leagues. Make a mistake in the minors, and you might get away with it. Make a mistake in the majors, and the batter most likely breaks into a home run trot.
As Fitz-Gerald is explaining how players learn what works and what doesn’t, Motonago breaks in.
“Nothing works against her,” he said, momentarily forgetting the wicked shot he accidentally hit off his frame against Fitz-Gerald. The shot slumped to the wall, and died. Fitz-Gerald never had a chance.
“If we work on the things she told us to work on, in the next two months, our level of play will increase dramatically,” Schmitt said. “That’s if we work on it.
“But if we just go play and don’t work on it, we won’t get any better.”
Schmitt himself is a retired doctor. He’s told the group, which contains many doctors, likely has the personality traits that will compel it to work toward excellence.
He smiles. “You’re probably right,” he says.
And Fitz-Gerald may not even be done with Alaska.
“I want to come up here when it’s cold,” she said. “I want to experience as cold as possible. The snow, all that.”
Squashie John Bramante mushes dogs. Fitz-Gerald has taken a dog-sled ride before. She’d love to take another.
The local squashies would not complain.
“She is just so giving with her instruction and allowing us to play with her,” Schoenrock said. “She could have beaten us a lot more badly if she wanted.”