George Washington University uses squash to emboss its public image

By Jon Brand
Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Colleges trying to attract top-caliber students to a campus where tuition, room and board costs more than $50,000 a year will do anything they can to make themselves stand out, to bolster their reputations as elite institutions of learning. When former president Steven Joel Trachtenberg was trying to emboss George Washington University's image, one of his approaches was original: squash.

So when the school started construction in 1999 on the 183,000-square foot Health and Wellness Center, a multimillion-dollar, four-level fitness complex, Trachtenberg advocated for six international regulation squash courts to be built. He subsequently worked with the athletic department to sanction the 25-year-old men's club team as varsity and add a women's program. Both squads started play in fall 2002, and the school recently strengthened its investment. This fall, GW became the first school in the country to offer scholarships to squash players, cementing its commitment to a sport that has been played at the collegiate level since 1931 but has just recently become more popular on college campuses.

Trachtenberg, an avid racquetball player, "was intuitive and wanted to recruit students that are looking to attend the Ivies," GW senior associate athletic director Mary Jo Warner said. "Obviously not every student can get into those schools."

GW, one of four non-Ivy Division I squash programs, recognized the academic value of squash student-athletes to the school, too. In the seven years of existence, the men's team has won the athletic department's team GPA award twice.

"These are also students that happen to be outstanding academically and it's the kind of students we want to attract to GW," said Bob Chernak, the school's senior vice president of student and academic support services. "It's not rocket science why we're giving support."

In the last decade, men's participation in the College Squash Association, the sport's governing body, has almost doubled, from 36 teams in 2000 to 66 this year. And the number of teams in women's squash -- considered an "emerging sport" by the NCAA, or one that is intended to help schools provide more athletic opportunities for women -- has increased from 28 to 39. But while the game has proliferated widely, from Palo Alto to Chapel Hill, expansion has been mostly through club programs that receive little support from athletic departments.

The best college squash teams -- also the oldest and most heavily funded -- are in the Ivy League and at their Division III academic counterparts such as Williams and Amherst, whose programs receive top prep school and international junior players each season. Half of the top 10 men's and seven of the top 10 women's programs are Ivies, and Trinity College's men have won the last 11 team championships.

Two years ago, GW men's coach Wendy Lawrence and women's coach Maura Myers approached the athletic department about getting funding for scholarships and initially were rebuffed.

"I think the university assumed that squash players already had money," Lawrence said, referring to the game's reputation in the United States as an elitist sport played mostly at exclusive prep schools and Ivy League universities.

That was and continues to be somewhat true -- recently, the family of one of Lawrence's players donated $100,000 to the team -- but the men's and women's squads at George Washington also have athletes on need-based financial aid. Tuition, room and board at GW is $51,775, one of the more expensive amounts in the country.

Six months after the rejection, however, the coaches received an e-mail. Both teams would be given partial scholarships to award new student-athletes starting this fall.

"We wanted to treat all of our programs the same," GW associate athletic director Chandra Bierwirth said. "This seemed to be the natural piece of the puzzle."

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