Squash players get hearts pumping, have fun

A British import, the sport is listed among the 10 healthiest

Health & Fitness

October 17, 2004|By Carl Schoettler | By Carl Schoettler,Sun Staff

If you type the word "squash" into an Internet search engine, the results will likely be recipes for vegetarian casseroles.

But increasingly you will also find information on the indoor racket sport that Beth Fenwick plays and coaches at the Merritt Athletic Club on Fort Avenue.

Squash has emerged from the elite private clubs and colleges where it had been played pretty exclusively since it was invented around 1830 at Harrow, the British school whose notable graduates include poet Lord Byron and Winston Churchill.

Not too long ago, to play squash you had to be a member of the Maryland Club, or the Baltimore Country Club, or go to Bryn Mawr and a couple of other schools and colleges. These days, you can play on courts at the Merritt Athletic Clubs in Locust Point and in Canton, and at the Meadow Mill Athletic Club in Hampden.

At the two Merritt clubs, there is league play, and a state championship tournament was held last spring in which about 60 players participated. According to the United States Squash Racquets Association, there are about 8,000 squash players in the country.

But squash retains a certain nostalgic glamour. After all, they had to adjourn a squash match the night the Titanic hit the iceberg. And Forbes magazine says that squash remains the "preferred sport of Wall Street."

Forbes also ranks squash No. 1 among the 10 healthiest sports, with "convenience" on its side: "30 minutes on the squash court provides an impressive cardio-respiratory workout."

Fenwick, 32, is Merritt's squash coach. On a recent day, she is playing with Gary Addington, 33, a real estate salesman and former racquetball player who switched to squash about four months ago. He plays now about three times a week.

"Squash is definitely way better exercise than racquetball," he says. "It's great cardio. That's one main reason I do it. So I don't have to run or do any other cardio. I'd rather have fun while I'm exercising."

The ball doesn't bounce

The squash court is a wedge-shaped rectangle, 21 feet by 32 feet, the front wall 15 feet high and the back wall 7 feet high. Players serve above a 6-foot-high line on the front wall. You lose the point if you hit the 19-inch high "tin" or "tell-tale." It rattles, to let you know. Players can also score when an opponent's ball goes out of bounds, or bounces more than once.

The squash racket looks like a high-tech badminton racket. The ball is about half the size of a racquetball. "That little ball does not bounce," Fenwick says. "You have got to get to it."

The game got its name because the ball "squashed" when it hit the wall and did not rebound.

"The principle of the sport is really to put the ball in the four corners," Fenwick says. Another tactic is to wear your opponent down by strategically placing your shots.

The game goes to the first player with nine points. A match is the best of five games.

"It's not for sissies," Fenwick says. "It is one of the most intense workouts you'll ever see -- whether core strength, or cardiovascular, or all the muscle strengths."

"Core stability," she says, patting her tummy. "All these muscles here which hold you up well. And help you when you're almost off-balance, to help you stay steady."

She adds: "It's a sport that requires a tremendous ... amount of fitness. You could never be fit enough. After a match, run a quick one or two eight-minute miles. Or do movement stuff so you can be quicker on court. ... You have to have the cross-training just to be a well-rounded player."

Fenwick says she's always been athletic. She played lacrosse and field hockey at Garrison Forest School and Trinity College, in Hartford, Conn. And she's been riding since she was 11 or 12 and won her first pony races. She's about jockey size: "I'm pushing 5-2."

"I won tons of flat races," she says of her riding days. "I rode in the Maryland Million one year and came in second."

Her father, Charlie Fenwick Jr., now a trainer, was the second leading amateur steeplechase rider of all time when he retired in 1994. In 1980, he became only the second American jockey to win the Grand National at Aintree Race Course, in Liverpool, England. Fenwick's brother, Charlie III, won the My Lady's Manor steeplechase this year.

"I come from a family that takes risks athletically, I guess," she says.

Physically demanding

Fenwick picked up squash after college. "I fell in love with it and became passionate about it," she says. "And then basically played six times a week for a couple of years, and then decided I was going to make this my occupation."

She earned a master's degree in coaching science at the University of Wales, in Cardiff. She was drawn to that school because it has one of the best squash programs internation-ally.

She says that in Great Britain and throughout Europe, squash is more of a working-class sport than in the United States. "Your local leisure centers have courts," she says.

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