Today I'm going to talk about my alma mater, the formerly known as the University of Western Ontario. Now it's officially just Western University. So I don't actually know if they go by UWO anymore. Anyways, I was very lucky that Jack Fairs was still coaching and travelling to most of the trips back then. As he's gotten older he's had to back away from coaching and hasn't travelled with the team in a few years. Today I'm going to discuss my experience at Western, where they are now, and what lies ahead for them.
My Experience at UWO
I wouldn't have went back to school if it wasn't for Western. I really loved squash and they had a strong squash team. My brother and some of my friends were already playing on the team. I knew lots of Canadians that were playing on teams in the U.S. as well. At the time I was about 21 and coaching in Toronto. I still had a love for competing along with coaching. Since having a few years off as a teen from squash I felt I had a lot more to learn and improve and thought that going to Western and playing for 4 years would be a great way for me to do this. It was a big risk as I had been out of school for a few years.
When I first got to Western we had a really strong team. We ended up coming 5th that season at the CSA team championships. It was so cool to train and compete as a team. I had 5 or 6 real evenly matched people to train with. There were a couple of seniors at the time that were hard workers and quite motivated to leave on a positive note. We trained really hard and the results spoke for themselves. Sadly, UWO hasn't finished this high again. In the next 3 years we finished 6th, 7th, and 9th (winning the 2nd division my last season). Our team was still pretty strong, but we lost a couple of top players and some didn't train as hard their 3rd and 4th years. Jack was an amazing man and I spent a lot of time chatting with him and writing emails for him, but he wasn't around to coach or run practices. We basically had captains practices all year. I always trained hard and some of the team did as well. But it was always challenging enforcing practice and leading practice as a player coach.
In my 4 years we only ever had 1 home match. So we always had to travel and play on the road on the other teams home courts. I felt like our team was normally the stronger team, but often just wasn't as fit. Our courts back in London were so cold that if a ball got to the back wall it rarely came out. When we went to play in the schools in the States the courts were very bouncy and our guys just weren't prepared to play 40 or 50 shot points. Back then we would drive 2 minivans to various schools. I always drove one as I was one of the older members on the team and Jack and/or Peg drove the other.
I was also lucky to be able to play the CSA individuals twice. In my senior year they were at Williams where I was runner up in the B draw losing to Chris Binnie of Trinity in 5 games. The other time it was at Navy and I played in the top draw and lost my only 2 matches, one was 3-0 to a top Princeton player Kim Lee Wong on the 4 wall glass show court and the other 3-2 to someone I can't remember. Guess I'm getting old! The caliber at the top of the CSA was already quite strong back then. I had a lot of tough matches and had a pretty pretty solid record considering I played 1 most of my last 2 years there. But playing as a team it doesn't matter if you win and your team loses. I've lost and the team won and I've also won and the team lost. Neither feels good, but it's always more satisfying having the team win. You just want to contribute.
So while at Western I studied kinesiology because I thought it was the most relevant to squash and for my future coaching career. I was surprised that I enjoyed a lot of my classes and the student athlete lifestyle. Playing squash while doing my degree made all the difference for me. It kept me focused, in shape, and improved my game. I also gained leadership qualities organizing practices and being the responsible one driving the team all over. While doing this I got to travel and play at some incredible schools and squash facilities all across the eastern United States. It was a terrific 4 years and many of my best friends are former teammates from UWO.
Western's Current Status
This is a tough one. We always knew that some teams didn't want us to be there. Being the only Canadian team that we didn't belong. Even though our team travelled to play all of our matches, some coaches didn't want us competing at all. I heard about many coaches meetings where they discussed how to get rid of us. It felt like every year could be our last. Somehow Western is still in the CSA. The big question is for how much longer? As all the other teams get better, Western doesn't have the same resources, namely coaching, the budget or facilities. This season a friend of mine is coaching the team while he is doing a masters degree. I'm sure he will do great, but he's busy and won't have the time to put into running the team like all the other schools do. This is only a short term solution. Western needs to get some money from fund raising and hiring a full time coach. All the other schools have a head coach and assistant coach (or 2) for both the mens and women's teams. Western has 1 player-student-coach. It's a tall order this season. But maybe because Western won't be taking a div 1 spot the conversation about kicking them out will drown out, thinking that they may be on their way to extinction as it is.
What happens from here is anyones guess. It surely doesn't look good though. There is such a great tradition built there from Jack and there have been countless great squash players represent the school. It would be a shame to see it fall apart. Unfortunately there are only a few solutions and none seem very promising. Western has to fundraise a lot of money annually from the squash alumni and use it to higher a full time coach, but I don't think they're currently raising anywhere near enough money from what I hear. On top of the coaching, it's also the expenses to go on all of these road trips with 10 kids. It adds up. Another option is that they hire someone as a faculty member that is also big into squash and does this on the side. This isn't a great solution, but Jack did this with the help of Peg for years. It's a lot of work running practices, organizing trips and matches with other schools, plus they would have to drive a minivan for 6-12 hours each way 6-8 times per year during the winter. It's a lot to ask of a professor. So unless this was a part time staff member it seems highly unlikely. The next alternative is that they continue using ex-players or people doing post grad work at the school to coach. This is again unreliable and will be difficult to have the sustainability that you need to drive a program forward.
I heard that Jack once raised over a million dollars (quite a few years ago) to build a squash facility for the team. And for some reason or another this was turned down by the school. I heard that part of the reason was that the finances needed to keep the facility operating year after year. That once the facility got built the school worried that they would end up having to cover the operating cost. But I'm sure there is more to it than that. If that facility got built, I'm sure Western would be in a different position these days. Of course they do have courts in their new athletic facility. But when I was there we weren't allowed to run team practices on them or host any team matches on them. Not to mention that they were incredibly slippery because they didn't put carpet down outside the courts and the other students played in all kind of improper footwear.
I can't think of any other positive alternatives for Western. I hope somehow it works out and many more kids have a chance to experience what I did. I was fortunate that I was able to stay in Canada while not spending a small fortune that I didn't have on tuition. I wasn't in a position where going to the U.S. would have been an option.
Did you go to Western? Do you know people that played squash there? Do you have any other solutions for the team? Do you think Western should be allowed to compete in the CSA?