A lot of the activities on Forbes Magazine’s Top 10 List of the world’s healthiest sports are ones you’d expect: rowing, rock climbing, swimming, cross-country skiing and basketball. But the list has squash trumping them all. The high-energy racket sport with a posh reputation was top-rated in the areas of cardio endurance, muscular strength and endurance, flexibility improvement and calorie-burning potential, with a low risk of injury.
The benefits are only part of the reason why squash-centered youth development programs are popping up in disadvantaged urban neighborhoods all over the country. Squash is played professionally and at the collegiate level in only the finest schools in the United States—it’s an ideal motivator for kids to stay in school, excel in their studies and shoot for the Ivy League.
Steel City Squash is Pittsburgh’s non-profit urban squash program, and its annual squash tournament, the Steel City Cup, has been growing in support and participation from the Pittsburgh squash community. This year, the event will take place all morning on Saturday, April 16 at the Rivers Club, with a reception at 12:30 p.m. during the final round. It’s the organization’s largest fundraising event of the year, supporting its mission to provide life-changing opportunities to students and their families in and around Pittsburgh’s Hill District.
Squash is an indoor racket sport played by two or four players in a four-walled court with a small, hollow rubber ball that does not bounce easily. The players alternate hitting the ball off all walls with the objective of hitting it in a designated area on the front wall. If the receiver misses the ball or hits the ball out of the designated area, the opponent gets points.
Steel City Squash was founded in 2014, when The National Urban Squash + Education Association helped Brad Young, current executive director of the organization, launch a program here in Pittsburgh based on his experiences with the urban squash model.
“I volunteered with Street Squash [in Harlem] when I was in grad school, and I fell in love with it the first day I was there,” says Young, Austin Avenue, who played squash in high school and on the collegiate level at Denison University. “I loved working with the kids. I became involved in all aspects of the urban squash model. I coached, worked in academics and enrichment courses and ran and developed their College Access & Success program.”
Young moved to Pittsburgh with his wife in 2014 because they enjoyed past visits and wanted to start a family here. He also had urban squash in mind when he made his choice. “I was looking at different cities, and I felt a program here was the most likely to succeed,” says Young.
Steel City Squash started taking students in January 2015, and in just one year, it has 37 students from four partner schools—St. Benedict the Moor School, Miller African-Centered Academy, Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy and University Prep. “The students begin in fourth grade and we stay with them through college completion,” says Young. “We don’t believe we can create a lasting impact without following them all the way through their education.”
The program serves students through sixth grade and it will serve higher grades as the current group ages. Steel City Squash will continue to recruit new fourth graders at the beginning of each school year.
“The partnerships that we develop with the schools are important because we are in there at least once a week, checking on students’ progress with teachers and administrators so that we can address their needs,” says Young. “We also meet with their families in their homes when a student first enters into the program. We like to make sure that everyone is bought into it. It’s a huge commitment for both the students and their families.”
The organization is based at the University of Pittsburgh, which has provided Steel City Squash with office space, classrooms, squash courts and an ideal location to reach the community. The afterschool program is three days a week during the academic year and five days a week during the summer. Half of the time is spent doing homework, tutoring and academics, while the other half is focused on fitness and, obviously, squash. Activities for the students include community service projects, mentorships, field trips and tournaments.
The students recently traveled to Boston over Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, where they played against students from other urban squash programs across the United States. They visited Harvard, where they met the coach and some of the Harvard squash team. For the majority of students, it was their first time on an airplane. The Steel City Squash students also just returned from Philadelphia this past weekend, where they got to meet and compete against other squash players at Agnes Irwin and the Squash Smarts.
Next week’s Steel City Cup is an invitational team fundraiser, and eight squash teams are competing to raise money to support the organization. The teams include The Women All-Stars, the Rising Stars, The Pittsburgh Golf Club, The University of Pittsburgh, the Duquesne Club, a Young Professionals team and two teams from the Rivers Club.
Students from other urban squash organizations who have played at the collegiate level will also play in the tournament, but they have not yet been assigned to a team. The participating teams are currently raising money to secure the top draft picks of the visiting NUSEA alumni.
“Any level of support would be extraordinarily appreciated,” says Young, “and we would be happy if people wanted to come and visit and see a little bit of what we are doing.”