In its fourth year the Overland Squash Tournament, hosted by the local Life Time Fitness in Kansas City, has attracted more squash enthusiasts and converted tennis and racquetball players than ever before.
“I have played in many squash tournaments and the quality of the Overland Park Tournament ranks right up there with some of the best, ” John Schutt, a longtime squash player—since the 1980s—enthused.
The Midwest squash community is not often thought of as a “hotspot” for squash, or a bedrock of competitive play—however, squash is no longer a sport reserved for the coasts, but has found its way to the middle.
Long known as the cradle of racquetball, the Midwest, and especially Kansas City seemed an unlikely place for President & CEO Kevin Klipstein to visit during the peak of squash season.
“Along with an Annual Fund check, Bill Padek wrote a brief note inviting me to visit what was going on in Kansas City. So far in this job I have not turned down an invitation to visit a community, so I sent him an email and we coordinated a visit around this tournament, ” said Klipstein.
“Many of our racquetball players have picked up squash, as they see me and other racquetball players on the squash courts, ” Bruce Keil, tournament director for Overland Park Life Time Fitness, shared.
“I always tell these people to try it, that I was skeptical at first, but once you play with someone that teaches you how, you realize squash is so much more in depth than racquetball, ” said Keil.
Squash is often compared to racquetball—a more mainstream reference point, also played with the same basic equipment (racquet, ball) and inside a court, but the similarities end there. Racquetball requires a shorter racquet, a larger ball, and more portions of the court are in play (the ceiling is fair game and there are no tins).
Brian Sheldon, a reformed racquetball player and squash-devotee (who has been playing the game for close to twenty years), enjoys the pressure of squash versus the fast-pace of racquetball.
“I tried to play both, but I found it too hard to catch back up to the speed of racquetball and I had already grown to love squash more. I like the fact that squash is much more strategic and requires better fitness. I tell people who ask the difference between them—the better you get in racquetball the shorter the points, the better you get in squash, the longer the points.”
When Keil started playing squash four years ago, the Kansas City squash community was largely divided. Players had their own groups they gravitated toward, play was more social and less organized; perhaps more hobby than passion—no tournaments or league teams.
“The squash people at our Life Time Fitness live in the Midwest, but many are from all over the world: England, India, Italy, Pakistan, Egypt, South Africa, ” Keil said. “Midwest people are friendly and receptive to new people. Our squash players let others mix in if you show up looking for a game.”
Sheldon readily agreed that a great aspect of squash in Kansas City was the camaraderie between players, and added, “The unique thing about our squash community is that there are not a lot of us that grew up playing squash. There are many players that have converted from racquetball or tennis, so you have a variety of styles. It keeps our matches interesting!”
Once Keil was immersed in the game—saying of his fellow Kansas City squashers, “All are willing to help others and teach techniques as well as the proper way to play the game, “—it was time to start planning a tournament.
Keil was not a newbie to running tournaments—having previously organized tennis and racquetball competitions—and opted for a pool play model to get a deeper breadth of skill-level play.
“Pool play was very successful and allowed people to meet others and play those they had never played. It also gave great exposure to more middle of the road players (B and C) to challenge up against A players. All the A players offered suggestions and tips to the B and C players, ” Keil explained.
“I would like to see our squash community have more people become US Squash members and support the organization that is growing our game. It would be helpful if our league matches became sanctioned, ” Sheldon said. “All of our players could establish ratings, giving them an opportunity to develop a baseline for competing in tournaments and playing others.”
Currently the Life Time Fitness in KC only supports two courts—which puts an added strain on the number of matches that can be played in a given tournament—and is frustrating to the growing squash community. If more courts were built, many players believe that teaching pros would be drawn to the program, helping to develop a stronger squash community—one that would encompass veteran players, as well as those new to the game.
“More courts gives us the opportunity to bring squash to new players, particularly younger players and teenagers looking for a sport that might help them round out their collegiate applications, ” Schutt said. “The biggest obstacle is finding a club that would be willing to convert portions of their indoor facilities, or unused racquetball courts to squash.”
“Statistically, we have all come to see that squash popularity is on the rise, as racquetball dwindles, ” Schutt continued, “and if we can show these club owners that we can bring in new members and additional revenue streams, I think we would find more interest in court conversions.”
US Squash maintains a Racquetball Conversion Fund that helps to provide direct funding to individuals and clubs willing to invest in squash, and has already sponsored sixteen conversions—Kansas City could be next.
“I wasn’t sure what I’d find in Kansas, and I what I did find was a remarkably friendly, welcoming, enthusiastic group of adult squash players, ” Klipstein said, after his Kansas City sojourn. “Outside of New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, and perhaps Atlanta, I am not sure there are more adult singles players competing in tournaments than in Kansas City! They want to increase access to the sport, and we’re doing everything we can to help make that happen.”
With the rapid growth of Midwest squash, and the very enthusiastic Midwesterners who play, Kansas City has asserted itself as a rising squash program to watch.