I won a national championship yesterday. Or, to be precise, the Trinity College Men’s Squash Team won a national championship, and by virtue of being their “academic liaison,” I won too.
My role is to help keep the players, most of whom come from other countries, on track as students. Every now and then I make so bold as to proffer some squash advice, which usually is politely received and wisely ignored. Mostly I come to matches and cheer.
I’ve been doing this for four years, which makes me a johnny-come-lately to the greatest collegiate sports dynasty of all time. Under the extraordinary leadership of Coach Paul Assaiante, the team has been in the national finals for 19 straight years, and between 1999 and 2012 won 13 in a row while compiling a dual-match winning streak of 252.
Both streaks came to an end during the 2011-12 season, but we bounced back undefeated in 2012-13. Last year, Harvard bested us during the season and, in Cambridge, kicked our butts in the national finals. This year, we lost one match (at Rochester), and yesterday brought home the trophy against St. Lawrence on our home courts.
It is hard to describe the tension that builds up over a season where success is, for better or worse, measured by whether or not you win the national championship. In the locker room before yesterday’s match, Assaiante told the team that when they see a great tennis player, a Federer or a Nadal or a Djokovic, fall to his knees after winning Wimbledon or the U.S. Open, it’s not about the joy of winning. “It’s relief. Relief that you can stop concentrating so hard, relief that it’s over.”
What’s distinctive about a sport like college squash is the interplay between individual and team. Everyone is playing for himself, but the success of the enterprise relies on the collective effort, and is measured by the collective tally.
In that sense it bears some resemblance to religion, where individuals find their own paths in the context of community. Of course, different religions strike difference balances between the individual and the communal. The nine players who prevailed yesterday included three Muslims (from Egypt, Pakistan, and Malaysia), two Hindus (Indian), and four Christians (Columbia, Mexico, the Netherlands, and England) — at least I think they’re Christians. The team as a whole also includes a couple of Jews (Hong Kong, the U.S.).
They’ll all get championship rings (me too!), which some of them will probably lose. What they’ll never lose is the experience of being neither Muslim nor Hindu, neither American nor international, neither senior nor freshman, but all one in Trinity Squash.