Here is an article I wrote that was published online today at dailysquashreport.com . I sure do love this game. The photo by Michael T. Bello was taken during the finals of this year’s national individuals. Can you find me in the crowd? I wrote about the winner (on left) in an earlier post .

final match to determine who is champion—3/4/2012

Watching the top college male squash players compete defies any concept you had of what athletes can do. It makes all other sports look like they are in slow motion. You cannot believe these guys can move so fast, volley so instantly, and hit a ball with a racquet so precisely. It is an amazing game. I have been watching it for just six years. And what these young men do is often spectacular.

But in spite of their hours and years of practice–some started playing when they were six–their devotion and love of the game, their skill and excellence, their heart, courage and unfathomable drive to win, it is all largely unappreciated in the United States. Anyone can attend a game for free and usually find a seat. You can sit next to the players who are watching their teammates. You can listen to the coaches give players counsel between games, and you can enjoy an intimacy with the sport that is just not possible when you are one of thousands of fans 30 rows up at a more popular sporting event like football, hockey, basketball, tennis or baseball.

If we are drawn to the other sports because we played them as kids, or can watch them on TV or at local venues, it still doesn’t explain to me the sparse crowds and why I became addicted. Sometimes there are just 20 non-player spectators at a match, and most are parents. At major rivalries and national competitions, there may be 200. At one national singles championship, the semi-finals match may have been watched by 30 of us, the finals by 70…and these numbers include players and coaches who are screaming for those from their schools. We are a special crowd of enthusiasts. Probably a bit eccentric. But all of us love the game and its surprises, the sweat and endurance, the athleticism and cheering, the tension, suspense and anxiety.

Although there is a pro-league to graduate to, almost none of the top college athletes can make it. The level of professional play is just too high, and the pros are practicing six hours a day, not two. The kids participate at school for the thrill and satisfaction of competing and excelling, learning to be part of a team or training for the rigors of adulthood.

And then it is over. After years of striving and fighting, practicing, camaraderie, discipline and defeat, admiration and adulation…it is finished. They leave school and sometimes, these days, they have a job. Often they don’t have any plans. They are facing the emptiness of a sour economy. They are hoping one of the 60 or so resumes leads to an interview. If they are from overseas, they have only a year to find employment and sponsorship. And if they do not, some will go back to India, Mexico or Egypt.

When the matches are over, and the winners decided, I am thrilled for the victors. But I am also sad for the frustration and disappointment of those defeated. They have given so much to be the best. And yet it was just not possible at this time. There was a poignant moment for me at this year’s individual semi-finals, when I saw 20 people crowding around the winner of a close five-game match, and the loser—whom I know—was a few seats away, sweating, exhausted and totally alone. I was glad to be there and console him as best I could.

Either way, for victors and runners-up, what do you imagine it is like to be among the best in the nation in your sport, and then to be done with it? To never again achieve that level of athletic excellence. I have been at many seniors’ last college match of their lives. I doubt the impact of that finality had really hit them. They tell me they are looking forward to the new life, without pressure and practice and the huge responsibility of playing for their team and their coach’s respect. They have been living for up to four years with the weight of that commitment. We all need to take vacations. But the end of the line is much more than an interval. It is a life junction. It is a new path. It is a beginning that leaves behind the brief and limited fame and familiarity. Maybe it equals the letdown of the empty nested mother whose kids have moved out and on for good.

I see the brightness in their eyes, their smooth and healthy skin, their wide, white smiles and the innocence of their demeanors. I know men from my high school days who five decades later still thrive mainly in those years long ago, regarding them as the best in their lives—when they caught touchdown passes, made winning baskets on the court, were ecstatic from the roar of the crowd.

I hope today’s young squash players do not pick their pasts over the present as the place to spend their futures. But the joy of their achievements is a peak period in all our lives that those who watched and created can remember forever.