Local sports tourism is getting another boost with two Ivy League universities sending their squash teams to Cayman for a week’s warm weather training before leaving on Tuesday.
Harvard University, based in Boston, and Brown University from Rhode Island, sent their players and coaches here to make the most of all that the South Sound Squash Club has to offer.
Last year Columbia University from New York came to Cayman and went back with glowing testimonies which contributed to these two colleges deciding on experiencing Cayman for themselves.
Once every four years, a U.S. university is allowed to travel abroad for their mid-season training and through Mark Chaloner, head coach at the club, these two were invited and willingly accepted getting away from the routine of campus life and also the record winter chill.
Chaloner is a former world-class player who still competes internationally. He said, “Luckily, with my contact network and through my time on the circuit I’ve met so many people and a lot of the coaches are actually friends of mine from my days running around the court.
“It makes it much easier to sell Cayman, especially with the facilities we have here at the club, an excellent place for them to come and train in the warm.
“They are having some gruesome weather right now in America so for these teams to come down, with the quality of players they have, it’s a perfect place.”
Chaloner ensured the players enjoyed all the usual tourist attractions, including dining out, water sports, Turtle Farm, Stingray City and Camana Bay.
“They’re really challenging themselves with different restaurants,” he laughed. “Training twice a day, they’re obviously hungry people so the restaurants do pretty well out of it.”
Chaloner added that the visitors are enjoying water sports like paddle boarding not just for recreation, but also to improve their strength and balance. “We’re really trying to push the healthy side of the Cayman Islands and there is so much to do here, so when they go back they can spread the word to other colleges so that every year we’ll have at least two come down at this time of year.”
Cameron Stafford is Cayman’s top squash player. He turned professional a couple of years ago and is steadily working his way up the world rankings. The standard of the college players is so high that Chaloner reckons some of their best exponents would give Stafford a tough match. “It would be a huge battle and Cameron would struggle,” he said.
He added that Harvard’s standards are so high that their top female, Amanda Sobhy – who was on this trip but left early to compete in the Tournament of Champions in New York this week – could develop into a world champion, having already won a world junior title.
Englishman Mike Way is head coach of the Harvard squash program. He played to a high level in the U.K. from his base in Nottingham and ended up coaching in Canada before getting the plum Harvard job four years ago.
Way said that the timing and location was perfect for his players. “With Mark here making it happen for us and being in the same time zone, the warm climate and fantastic facilities, it really works for us,” Way said. “It gives the players a mental break as well as a break from the cold. It also brings the teams tighter.”
“I really love it, love the sun,” Sachin Patel, Harvard men’s co-captain said. “We’ve done a lot of team bonding, which is good. We’re playing in a hot environment which is good for our fitness as well.”
Tyler Olson is the other Harvard men’s co-captain who loves everything about Cayman too. He said he knew that Cayman’s squash standards must be good, having staged the World Open in Camana Bay in 2012, but was “still blown away by how good the facilities are.”
Olson said that despite the extreme heat, “the ball was not bouncing all over the place, a very true bounce.”
He feels that when they go back to cooler Boston “it will be easier to read the ball off the wall and put your drops (shots) in.”
Hayley Mendez is the co-captain of Harvard’s women’s team and she too was extremely impressed with her introduction to Grand Cayman. “The squash club is great,” she said. “There are seven courts and it’s good to train in the heat for our fitness and mental strength. It’s better than being in Boston right now.
“To other universities thinking of coming here, I would highly recommend it. It’s a great facility, nice to train in the heat and Mark has helped us out a lot.”
She added that this was the “perfect combination of hard training and beach time.”
Harvard’s next big match is against Trinity University next week and they’ll feel rejuvenated after this trip. Harvard hope to win the national championships this year and Mendez, 21, intends to become a squash pro this summer once she graduates.