Clay Blackiston ’12 delivered the following address as a keynote speaker at the 15th Annual PVC Awards Banquet on May 31st, 2012.
I’m not athletic. Fellow senior Doug Davis is the second highest scorer in Princeton men’s basketball history behind Bill Bradley. I was banned from playing middle school basketball at recess because I couldn’t grasp the concept of “dribbling.” Don Cabral broke the all-time collegiate steeplechase record less than one month ago and is contesting to qualify for the Olympics. I play squash. So, I will not try to summarize all of your athletic experiences tonight; I’m just going to tell you a story.
In 2006, when I was merely a sophomore in high school, Trinity had dominated college squash for the last seven years, winning 134 matches straight, the longest winning streak for any college sport. In the regular season with Trinity that year, Princeton tied the match at four-all, leaving it all up to our number-one player, Yasser el-Halaby, who is the best player in the history of college squash. Yasser was far superior to his opponent, so with the overall score tied, and Yasser on court, it was a shoe-in victory for Princeton. After making quick work of his opponent in the first two games, Yasser served at match ball, seconds away from beating Trinity. The Trinity coach even shook our coach’s hand, saying congratulations. But Yasser lost that point. His opponent pulled off an unfathomable comeback. Trinity’s winning streak survived.
Three years later, I arrived on campus as a freshman. I was elated to play on the Princeton squash team. Bob Callahan, who has been coaching for 30 years at Princeton, said our team that year had the best lineup in Princeton squash history. That was the year we were going to win it all and finally beat Trinity, who had extended their winning streak now to 201 matches in a row.
In the finals of the National Championship, in Jadwin Gym that year, we faced off against Trinity. After six hours of squash, it all came down to our number-one player. He was up five-zero in the fifth and final game, but once again, somehow, Trinity’s player came back and won the match. Trinity had beaten us in the finals of nationals for four years in a row.
A week later, I wrote my coach, saying that I felt like someone had died. In a sense, something had died; at least, within me. The Dream had died. I realized that there was no point in caring about squash. We had just had the best team in Princeton history, and we still couldn’t win with it.
This disillusionment carried over into my sophomore and junior year. The walk to Jadwin became a daily event I dreaded. I no longer looked forward to squash practice. My heart was not in squash.
I think all of us enter this existential crisis at one point or another. As you go through the daily motions and grinds of your life, you wonder, “What is the point in doing this?” Squash, at the end of the day, is just two opponents smacking a rubber ball against a wall, and we declare winners and losers at the end. But, who cares?
This year, my attitude began to change. From the first day I stepped on campus, I had one prevailing thought: graduation. It dawned on me that this was my last chance to play college squash. I started to regain my heart and believe once again that we could finally beat Trinity.
On a weekend that felt ominously similar to my freshman year, nationals were at home again this year. And in the finals, lo and behold, it was us versus Trinity. After going down four-two in matches, we then tied the score back at four-all. Once again, it all came down to one match. This time, finally, that last match went our way. That day was the happiest day of my life. But much more importantly, what I have just told you is the most incredible story that I have ever been a part of.
Yet, I suspect most of you did not know this story, or perhaps only knew the ending. And what I realized is that most of the world will never know this story. Compared with a sport such as tennis or baseball, very few people play or watch squash in this country. Squash is never on Sportscenter’s “Top Ten Plays.” When we won nationals this year, ESPN’s coverage amounted to 110 words in the “Other Sports” section of the website.
A lot of people don’t even know what squash is. Earlier this year, while stopped at a gas station on the way to Dartmouth, a teammate of mine was asked what squash is by someone at the checkout counter. My teammate responded, “Oh it’s an indoor racquet sport, a lot like racquetball.” “Oh, I see,” the person said with a nod. “So, is that like water polo?”
I have realized that a total of a few thousand or so people would even find out about our victory. Most people, even those fans who were ecstatically cheering for us in the front row, had moved on with their lives after about a week. So in a sense, we really had been just smacking a rubber ball around a court. So what was the point?
Well, despite the fact that our victory probably didn’t matter to most of the world, it still mattered to me. Even if it wasn’t a big accomplishment to the average Joe sitting at his TV set, it was still a part of this unbelievable story, of Princeton squash.
Likewise, Princeton Basketball may not have made it past the first round of the NCAA Tournament in 2011, but when Doug Davis hit that buzzer-beater to catapult the men’s team into the tournament, I have never felt so much school pride.
Being a part of a story, and creating our own stories is perhaps the most important thing we can do with our lives. What are our lives, other than stories that we each author? We must create these stories, regardless of whether or not they will become New York Times bestsellers.
In order to do so, we must avoid having the jaded attitude that I had my sophomore and junior year. We must have the naiveté of a freshman to give of ourselves without hesitation to a dream we believe in. And most of all, we must have the desperation of a graduating senior; reminding ourselves that this precious life is our last chance. Thank you.