The visa Mark Allen presented when he flew into the United States until about 10 years ago identified him as an “Alien of Extraordinary Ability.” This is a rare classification—rarer still when the extraordinary ability listed is squash.
“People thought I was an expert in vegetables,” says Allen, a native of Colchester, England, who moved to Charlottesville in 2013 to coach UVA’s men’s and women’s squash teams at the $12.4 million McArthur Squash Center at the Boar’s Head Inn.
Thanks to that facility and to the team’s growing success, people are less likely to mistake the coach for an authority on gourds. “The sport of squash is catching on,” says Allen, now a permanent resident. “People are noticing what our student-athletes are accomplishing.”
“It’s fun to be part of a program that’s growing so quickly,” says Carey Danforth (Col ’18), who grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut.
The season runs from October through March, and success came early, with victories over Wesleyan and Hamilton—both of whom beat UVA a year earlier. “We’re getting a great reputation, so we’re attracting better and better players,” Danforth says. These are players who might otherwise have gone to schools with more established programs, like Harvard and Princeton.
Squash occupies a peculiar spot in the collegiate athletic firmament—make that in the athletic firmament, period. Invented at England’s Harrow school in the early 19th century, squash is popular in South Africa, Egypt, India and Pakistan. Played with a rubber ball that, when dropped or first struck, barely bounces, the demanding, fast-paced racket sport has a loyal and growing following in the States. In Manhattan, the 1979 movie that defined the city for many viewers, even Woody Allen (no relation to Coach Mark) plays.
That squash has yet to catch on at public institutions in the South may also be little surprise. It has been played in the Northeast since the 1880s but is not an NCAA sport or, at UVA, a varsity sport. At UVA, the program is a Contracted Independent Organization. It’s like an intramural sport—though the teams compete against schools such as Princeton and Harvard, where it is a varsity sport.
“These athletes are as dedicated as those who play for Harvard, but they lack the recognition of, say, basketball players,” Allen says. “They’re elite students who happen to play squash at a very high level.”
Every player who sees the glass-walled court—ideal for televised white-ball matches—seems to want to play in it. “I’ve seen the top facilities at the Ivies, and none match this one,” says Grayson Bubrosky (Col ’19). In 2018, the facility will host the biennial World Masters Squash Championships. This is the first time it will be held in the U.S.
“We think we provide the University a lot of benefit,” Allen says.