When I asked Henry Ortmeyer ’18 how often he meets people who don’t know what squash is, his answer was immediate and matter-of-fact: “Oh, so often. No, no one knows about it, no one ever knows.”
The strategy he’s developed for clearing things up is to tell his confused interlocutors that “it’s kind of like racquetball with a smaller ball.” As a person coming to the conversation with a thorough vagueness on the rules of any racket sport other than tennis or ping pong, I admit I was left with some questions.
Ortmeyer, a senior from nearby Gladwyne, PA, a nationally ranked squash player in high school and the co-captain of the Swarthmore squash team, agreed to answer them. I sat down with him in his room to discuss his relationship to the sport, his evolution as a player, and about what makes squash squash. He gave thoughtful responses, sitting cross-legged on the floor. Above him, pinned to the wall was a large ‘gho’ — the robe-like national dress worn by men in Bhutan, where he had just spent a semester abroad, and was, incidentally, the only place he had ever seen squash playing on live TV.
Ortmeyer admits that squash is “not all that understandable” so I won’t attempt to explain the rules (mostly because I don’t understand them), but suffice it to say that players take turns hitting a relatively unbouncy rubber ball in an enclosed, four-walled court, in which it is possible to hit the ball against any wall as long as it is within a certain area that is designated as ‘in.’ Games are played to eleven points, with 90 seconds off the court in between games, and the winner of the match taking the best of five. Gameplay is rapid, aerobically exhausting, and leaves one with a deep appreciation for the grasp of geometry held by the players as they angle balls crazily between the floor and walls.
Doing some research about squash’s origins, I learned that it stems from a game called “rackets,” which was invented in an eighteenth-century debtor’s jail in London. Prisoners would hit a dense ball made of cloth off of one or two adjoining walls with – you guessed it – racquets. The basic conditions necessary for the genesis of a complex, hitting-a-ball-off-a-wall sport seem to be a) high walls, and b) boredom, because the game also particularly caught on at boy’s boarding schools, and it was at the Harrow School in 1865 that several of the younger boys started playing a “softball” version of rackets. Using lighter bats and a rubber ball, squash was born. Invented by the British upper class and played largely in private clubs, squash has maintained a reputation for being an esoteric, aristocratic pastime, though the sport followed the spread of the British Empire and today many of the world’s top players are from Egypt, Malaysia, and India.
Ortmeyer says that people attempting to explain squash — and its unique appeal – usually compare it to two things: chess and boxing. The chess analogy is not difficult to grasp, given squash’s emphasis on strategy and precise angles, but the boxing comparison brings attention to an aspect of the non-contact game that is less obvious to anyone who hasn’t played – its “mano y mano” brutality, mentally and physically.
A word that Ortmeyer used a few times during our conversation is “grind,” both to describe his style as a player – rather than developing a repertoire of flashy shots, he prefers to “grind it out,” trying to best his opponent through superior fitness and concentration – and to describe what drew him to the sport. After a childhood stint as a soccer goalie ended due to a lack of enthusiasm for team sports and a tendency to “get distracted and look at other stuff,” he was introduced to squash in middle school by a friend and was hooked.
“I just lost it for squash,” he says.
He came from a family of tennis players, but preferred squash’s understated toil. “When you get on court there’s the potential to have such a long game, it’s just an absolute grind sometimes, a monumental effort, and I really loved the idea of that,” he explained. “Just these Herculean efforts. There aren’t big serves — tennis has big serves, big movements and moments — but there aren’t that many big moments in squash.”
When men’s magazines cheerfully describe squash as being the healthiest sport to take up, what they’re saying is that it’s exhausting. Ortmeyer explains that the legs bear the brunt of the impact and are the part of the body most prone to being injured (he was recently out with a strained hamstring), but on court you mostly feel it in your lungs. He thinks for a moment and corrects himself: “That’s not true, you also feel it in your legs.”
He continues, “There’s camaraderie in the fact that there is absolute pain involved. When you’re feeling really tired, it’s almost like you’re just moving through water. You’re doing the same movements but they’re slower and slower.” To combat this, Ortmeyer says the key is to over-train – in workouts, to play for almost twice as much time as you would normally in a match, so that “you always have an extra reserve — you know even when you’re tired, you’ll have the luxury of knowing the other person is more tired.” In addition to practice time, this involves a lot of aerobic exercise, lifting to stave off injuries, and above all, burpees and lunges.
With a look that is both wistful and pleased, he says, “I’ve thought about this – I think I might be in the upper percentile of human beings to have done lunges.”
However, mental work is equally important. In the enclosed, hyper-competitive space of the squash court it’s easy to lose focus, which is a sure way to end a match in your opponent’s favor in such a strategic sport.
“I have to calm down to play well,” says Ortmeyer. “When I’m playing well, it’s kind of trancelike. I’m struggling to imagine anyone who plays well when they’re angry, because your decision-making plummets.”
He describes getting so overwhelmed during matches in high school that he would come off the court between games unable to breathe. “If you start losing, like three points in a row, you just get so angry with yourself, and there’s no reprieve from that, no break until the end of the game. It’s easy to get disoriented and let the entire match slip away.” The solution, he says is to “develop quick recovery skills” which includes strategies ranging from cleaning your goggles so you have a quick moment to recalibrate yourself, to learning repetitive patterns of shots during training to fall back on so that you can give your mind a rest.
“When you get tired, it’s so hard to think,” says Ortmeyer. “If you have too many options, your brain breaks.”
When he plays, he tries to tune out everything outside the glass, to the extent that in the past he developed a habit of “completely forgetting what the score was, like every game.” He finds it easier to maintain “a vague sense of where the other person is” but mostly play with the ball, not against his opponent.
“I’d acknowledge that there was another human and that they were hitting the ball, but I’d just try to play myself.” He pauses, perhaps transported back to the womb-like isolation of the court, and remarks, “Really it was just me, the shadow of another person, and a ball, inside a court detached from everything.”
Ortmeyer ended high school ranked 60th in the nation, and was recruited to play for Wesleyan, a (relative) powerhouse squash school. However, he preferred Swarthmore despite its lack of a varsity team, which means the school offers no coach and has no recruiting power.
Reflecting on the lower level of competition here and on his relationship with squash in the future, Ortmeyer says, “I know it sounds a little bit ludicrous, but it can be hard to come to terms with the idea that you won’t be the best at your particular thing. If it had been the middle of high school and I thought, I want to be the best squash player in the world, that would have been possible. The older you get – it’s not a thing anymore. I have to get used to fact that if I want to keep up squash, it’ll have to be at a nominal level. I’ll be better than some people, but worse than a whole lot more.” He sobers for a moment, seemingly pondering what might have been. “I never really thought about that before.”
However, he brightens thinking about the team and his first year of co-captaincy with Charlotte Iwasaki ‘18 (who he admits is currently carrying the brunt of the emailing and logistical work). “I love this team,” he says. “I love that it’s a club team, and I love that we make all these decisions ourselves.”
One thing he wants to work on with the team this year is mental health, both “squash and regular.” He says, “I think we assume if we get the technical skillset we’ll be winners on the court, and that’s not necessarily the case. A lot of people on the team are really hard on themselves and I’d like to make that a bigger focus. They should like squash, because it’s fun. When it comes down to it, it’s just a really satisfying sport.”
I press a bit further, asking what is at the core of squash’s satisfaction. “At the really core core?” he says, pausing for a moment. “I just think it’s that we like getting really tired.” He thinks more deeply. “Oh god, at the core core?”
“Yeah!” I say.
We’re both a bit worked up, feeling that squash’s innermost heart is about to be laid bare. “Maybe it’s just winning…maybe we like to win? I don’t know. Maybe there’s something really great about hitting a ball really hard. It really feels good to get out, and run, and hit a ball. The best reason to start playing a sport before you get all metaphysical on it is to just enjoy the feeling it gives you.”
We let that sink in for a moment, feeling that something has been solved, until I ask him how he feels about squash’s chances to get into the Olympics this year.
“Oh my god, it should already be in the Olympics!” he explodes. “What’s in there? Some stupid one’s in there instead of squash. I’ll be real, there are some winter sports that are not as interesting or rigorous as squash.” He gestures towards the notes I’m taking, indicating his refusal to be censured. “Send this to the International Olympic Committee. God, send it to them. Jesus.”