By Nell Schwed
The seventeenth Pan American Games in Toronto in July will showcase the strongest American squash contingent in history. Of the six competitors, half are returning veterans to the Pan Am stage—Natalie Grainger, Olivia Blatchford, and Chris Gordon. The other three are the 2015 national champions Amanda Sobhy and Todd Harrity, as well as Chris Hanson, who has skyrocketed in the world rankings. With a squad of multiple national champions and full-time professionals, Team USA is well-prepared for the summer competition.
In his third trip to the Pan-Ams as a Team USA coach, Paul Assaiante, the head squash coach at Trinity, will head the women’s team; Gilly Lane, an assistant coach at Penn, will coach the men. Lane has had experience on the Pan Am scene himself—playing in the annual Pan American Squash Championships in Mexico last year, as well as in 2013 in Argentina and 2008 in Ecuador.
The Pan-Am Games are played once every four years. The first games were held in Buenos Aires in 1951. This inaugural event featured eighteen sports, whereas this year’s Pan Ams will showcase thirty-six, among them waterskiing and synchronized swimming. Squash has been a featured event in the Pan Ams since the 1995 games in Mar del Plata, Argentina—since then it was in Winnipeg in 1999, Santo Domingo in 2003, Rio in 2007 and Guadalajara in 2011. Thus, Toronto is the sixth time Team USA has made an appearance. (The 2019 games are in Lima.)
The Pan Ams are the world’s third largest international multi-sport games—surpassed only by the Olympic Summer Games and the Asian Games. More than 7,000 athletes representing forty-one countries will converge on Toronto, July 10-26 for the sixteen-day competition. The squash matches begin on the 11th and end on the 17th. Being in the Pan-Ams is a key steppingstone in the path towards inclusion in the Olympic Games.
Squash in the Pan Ams is comprised of six events: individuals, team and softball doubles for men and women. Fifty-six players overall will qualify to compete in the Pan Ams (thirty-one men, twenty-five women), and each country is allowed to enter a maximum of three athletes for each gender. Today the Pan Ams nowdiffer from the world team championships in that only three players represent their country, rather than four, and there are no rotations—each player competes in every match. It will be a brutal, lengthy event.
Canada leads the way in number of overall squash medals with thirty, but the United States and Mexico are strong second and third place competitors themselves with sixteen and fifteen respective medals. Host country Canada has won gold in the men’s teams three times and all but once in the women’s teams.
Chris Gordon—the only returnee from the men’s 2011 team—has played in two previous iterations of the Pan Ams. His highest finish was in the 2007 men’s doubles with Julian Illingworth; the duo were runners-up to Mexico’s Arturo Salazar & Eric Galvez. Natalie Grainger, also a veteran of the Pan Am scene, scored the second gold individual medal for the United States in 2007; Grainger grabbed silver with the women’s team that same year.
In the 2011 competition, both the men’s and women’s teams placed third in the overall team competition. This year Team USA will look to capitalize on their strength in this most prestigious and competitive event.
“In Winnipeg in 1999, all I heard was the Canadian national anthem, as they swept virtually all of the medals,” said Paul Assaiante. “In Santa Domingo in 2003, I was fortunate enough to see our women win the gold medal and Preston Quick win the silver in men’s singles. This Pan American games looks to be one of the best in our history. Our women’s team is simply fabulous with Amanda Sohby the world No. 10 player, Olivia Blatchford world No. 36 and Natalie Grainger former world number 1. On the men’s side, we have a very nice mix of experience and youth as the team is Christopher Gordon, a seasoned pro, Todd Harrity, a rapidly rising full-time pro, and an under-valued Chris Hanson who is playing the pro tour. We cannot wait to get to Toronto and begin the matches, and hopefully we will hear the Canadian national anthem a few less times.”