Campus & Community

Louisa Hall and the poetry of squash

6 min read

A champion on the court finds time to write a thesis on Seamus Heaney

While she hopes to eventually pursue her literary interests, Hall’s present plans include competing professionally and working for CitySquash, a program that will allow her to put a community service spin on her passion. (Staff photo Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard News Office)

On a recent Friday between getting back from a training weekend in Pennsylvania and getting ready to head to Greenwich for the United States Squash Team trials, Louisa Hall ’04 spent a few hours at the Science Center taking her final exam in English 17: “American Literature.” The delicate balancing act of academics, training, and competing is hardly unusual for a student athlete. But Hall’s athletic interests and achievements are.

Since she started playing squash when she was 9, Hall has been scooting around the country, then the globe, competing in tournaments and accumulating an impressive gallery of medals and titles. The collection has only multiplied since she arrived at Harvard and joined the varsity team at the No. 1 position. Her stint as an undergraduate player began with her scoring the Ivy League Rookie of the Year in 2001 before she went on to be the No. 1 player in every match she played on the Harvard team, of which she was captain her sophomore and junior years. She was also honored as First-Team All-American as well as All-Ivy all four years.

But this is hardly surprising. After all, while still in high school in Haverford, Pa., Hall played on the 1998 U.S. Women’s World Team in the World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany. The following year, while she played in the top spot on the Junior Women’s World Team for the championships in Antwerp, the team finished fifth, the highest rank that any U.S. World Team ever scored.

Ask her how she got involved in the sport, and Hall quickly responds, “It runs in my family.” Her father played as an undergraduate at Harvard in the 1960s. Her sister Colby, who is two years older, also started playing at the age of 9. So after a few years of trekking around to tournaments as an observer, Hall got into the squash circuit herself. By seventh grade she was attending training camps in England. When Hall began at Harvard, where her sister was a junior, they were teammates for two years on the varsity team.

Hall has the sun-splashed appearance of a beach volleyball player and the gentle manner characteristic of someone who’s spent time growing up on a farm – which is sort of the case. During childhood, she took frequent visits to the Maryland farm where her mother, a teacher, grew up. She reels off the names of countries she’s passed through since 1999 – Egypt, England, Holland, and Scotland – with the nonchalance of someone reporting what she had for dinner yesterday. In fact, to hear her tell it, the travel factor is not a particularly glamorous aspect of her sport. International competition is simply the only strategy to improve one’s game.

Spend just a little time with Hall and it’s clear that she’s as versed in the history of the sport as she is skilled at playing it. She explains that most top-ranked players are from other countries, largely because America was a relative latecomer on the squash scene. It’s only been within the last 10 years that Americans started to compete internationally because for most of history, while the rest of the world played with a soft ball on smaller courts, Americans played with a hard ball, which made the game more suitable as a quick lunch hour workout. The last decade, in fact, has been a particularly opportune time for Hall to be a squash player because during that stretch U.S. players transitioned to using a soft ball, making them eligible for international competition. That means, according to Hall, “I definitely spent the first years learning how to play the wrong way.”

But once she relearned the game, she was ready to give her passport a good workout.

“You need to take a little initiative when you travel and do stuff outside of the squash court, or else you’ll leave a country and be like, ‘So the squash courts are the same in Belgium as they are in the U.S.’ When I went to the Dominican Republic,” she said, referring to her travels last summer to Santo Domingo, where she won the gold medal in the Pan-American Games as the No. 2 player on the U.S. National Women’s Team, “it was really fun because I speak Spanish in a butchering kind of way. I found little things in other countries that I really value and remember.”

She can be forgiven for her pidgin Spanish, since her concentration at Harvard has been English. She wrote her thesis on the “Poetry of Identification” of Seamus Heaney, a poet she identifies with.

“Heaney talks about how fishing is the activity that sort of substitutes for his poetic urge. There’s sort of a similar rhythm to the catch as there is to going out there and hitting by yourself against a wall,” Hall says. “There’s something sort of soothing about getting yourself into a rhythm like that. It just struck me when I heard that. There’s something about just rural roots that I think I identify with, just because my mom grew up at a farm so I spent a lot of time on her farm growing up. I feel as though there’s a language of that which makes Heaney – and Frost, too – feel really visceral to me.”

While she hopes to eventually pursue her literary interests, her immediate plans include competing professionally while working part time for CitySquash, a program in the Bronx that will allow her to put a community service spin on her passion for the sport. She has agreed to a two-year stint working with inner-city middle-school students who play squash. It’s an ideal way to continue the community involvement interest that she nourished throughout her undergraduate years. Since she was a first-year, she participated in a prisoner education program and volunteered with SquashBusters, the program that CitySquash is modeled after. But whereas her work with SquashBusters involved hitting with the kids, her work in New York is more managerially oriented. She’ll be able to work with less advantaged children and help them take advantage of the same kinds of opportunities she had.

“It is true that squash has opened so many doors for me. It’s given me the opportunity to travel and see some amazing places and to come to a college like this. It helps so much with getting into college, so it’s really such a great thing to be spreading to more kids. In America, squash is a sport played among elite people, which is interesting because in other countries it’s very much not like that. It’s more like basketball. There actually aren’t really country clubs in other countries where they play squash. It’s more like: There’s the squash courts, and there’s the pub right behind it. It’s much less stigmatized than it is here. And the best countries in the world right now are Egypt and Malaysia. It’s been such a nice opportunity to see the world.”