Squash Smart Uses Sport to Inspire Philadelphia Kids

Article and video courtesy of WHYY

Article by Elizabeth Fiedler
Video by Kim Paynter

The U.S. Open of Squash is wrapping up with the finals at Drexel University tonight. Some Philadelphia kids from the after-school “Squash Smarts” program have been watching the pros face off.

Tempest Bowden, a Squash Smarts alum, used to be angry. “I had a problem with authority, family problems,” said Bowden. “I could hit the ball as hard as I can, and it’s OK. Before I was definitely a very angry person. And now I’m a good person, I think.”

The 21-year-old, a graduate of Simon Gratz High School, says squash helped her get used to dealing with strangers.

“I wasn’t used to elite type people,” said Bowden. “They were very preppy people and the clothes and the way they spoke. I didn’t know those kind of people existed in the world other than teachers!  Squash Smarts basically got me to Mt. Holyoke College, and I don’t know where I’d be without it.  Being on the court—that pushed me to be the person that I am now.”

Bowden has left behind her dream of joining the WNBA. Now she wants to be a public school music teacher.

Steven Gregg, the Executive Director of Squash Smarts, says the program is changing the lives of children from West and North Philadelphia.

“For the last 10 years, Squash Smarts has worked with close to 90 students. Of those 90 students, we’ve had a 100 percent graduation rate from high school and acceptance rate into college,” said Gregg. “The expectation is that they commit to three days a week from middle school throughout high school careers. We help them with their high school placement, their college placement, and most importantly we help them build confidence.”

Gregg says the tutoring and sport program is successful because it is small and there’s an intimate relationship with students and families. And, of course, it helps students build a love of an out-of-the-mainstream sport.

“This is considered the No. 1 cardiovascular sport in the world, played with a ball,” said Gregg. “It is very often refered to as ‘physical chess.’ In a 21-by-31 foot square box, two players compete. The goal is to dominate the center of the court and to win a series of 11 points of the course of five consecutive games.”

Gregg says over the years the program has helped spread the word about the sport in neighborhoods around the city.

“You can actually practice the sport over and over and over by yourself,” said Gregg. “We’ve had a number of Squash Smarts students who go on to fairly competitive careers both in high school and in college.”

A few minutes later Gregg heads onto the court to face off against Squash Smarts grad Tempest Bowden.

“The weird thing was the name ‘squash,’ which is a vegetable. But then I got introduced to the sport,” said 15 year old Oscar Merino, from West Philadelphia. The Squash Smarts student now loves the sport with the vegetable name.

“I think it’s a really great way to show your determination,” said Merino. “You can go for every ball or just stop and give up. I never give up. I’m a better student. Academics has improved a lot. Probably my average was a ‘C,’ and now I have an average of an ‘A.'”

Drexel squash coach John White says the game has a long history in Philadelphia.

“U.S. Squash was the first international association that got together and had their own squash association,” said White. “That was in 1904. And it was here in Philadelphia that they started. They just picked up a game, loved it, and started their own association.”

White, who was once ranked No. 1 in the world, says he got to see the world by playing squash.

Even though most Philadelphia students prefer basketball and football, he says it makes sense to give them a chance to pick up a racket.