The Felicity of a National Championship

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Squash2013ChampsAmong the things I do is serve as academic adviser to the Trinity College men’s squash team, which yesterday in New Haven won the national men’s collegiate squash championship for the 14th time in the last 15 years.

From 1999 into 2012, the team compiled the longest winning streak in intercollegiate sports history–252 straight victories to go with 13 straight championships. Last year, we lost our dual meet with Yale, and lost to Princeton in the championship final, 5-4. This year we went 19-0, defeating Princeton away 7-2, Yale 7-2 both at home and in the national semifinal Saturday, and Harvard away 5-4 and to take yesterday’s cup 6-3. The 15-year record now stands at 281-2.

What made all this possible was the college’s decision in the mid-1990s to recruit top players from the international youth circuit. After a few years, the historically dominant Ivy league squash programs got tired of getting their butts kicked by the likes of Trinity, and began doing the same. That the team has managed to stay on top for so long is a tribute to the coaching prowess of Paul Assaiante, and to the emergence of a family feeling among the players–and the sense of being part of a fellowship extending back in time–that would be remarkable in a team sport but which is extraordinary when it’s just one single combat after another.

The top players this year are from India, Egypt, South Africa, Sweden, Mexico, Colombia, El Salvador, Canada, Malaysia, and yes, the United States. The story of an oddly assorted international community drawn together by perhaps not the most noble purpose in the world–defeating the leviathans of American higher education–put me in mind of Moby Dick, the classic American tale of obsessive pursuit. In chapter 94, Ishmael, the narrator, describes how, after the intensity of a whale kill, he is given the task of squeezing the congealed globules of aromatic sperm oil back into liquid. A “strange sort of insanity” comes over him:

I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say,- Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy!

Ishmael wishes that he could continue such squeezing for all eternity, but moralizes, “For now, since by many prolonged, repeated experiences, I have perceived that in all cases man must eventually lower, or at least shift, his conceit of attainable felicity; not placing it anywhere in the intellect or the fancy; but in the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side; the country.”

To that list I would add: the national championship.