Aidan Harrison loves his day job.
He gets to wear shorts and tennis shoes and hold a racquet for most of the time. He gets to teach about a subject he is passionate about. So passionate, when the last lesson is done most nights at 7 p.m., he’ll talk to anyone he can about what he spends all day doing.
“It’s an easy game to pick up,” said Harrison, speaking with a thick British accent. “I’m just handing over the love I have for the sport. They see it.”
“They” are Harrison’s students. The “game” is squash.For 10 years, Harrison has been teaching the mostly European game to children and adults at the Onwentsia Club in Lake Forest. With many of the same qualities as racquetball, squash differentiates itself in its subtitles. Played with a smaller, softer ball and with longer, thinner racquets, it is a game of finesse rather than brute strength.
Its pace and cadence fits the persona of Harrison, a soft-spoken Englishman off the court, but who possesses the hair-trigger focus of an army sniper within the walls of play. He also carries the ambitious gene of a Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur, with his sights set on spreading the fledgling sport far beyond the handful of courts that make up Onwentsia’s facilities.
“The problem is there are not enough courts. There’s demand for it,” said Harrison. “Forbes voted it the healthiest sport in the world.”
It is far healthier on the East Coast. Squash is a varsity sport at high schools and is played as a seasonal sport, just as wrestling or swimming is here in the Midwest.
In January, Harrison took a team of middle school-aged athletes to Yale University in New Haven, Conn., to play in the National Middle School Squash Finals. The team of three girls and three boys from all over Lake County, including Lake Forest and Lake Bluff, finished second overall in the 32-team event. Not bad when you consider they were the only team that had to get on a plane to fly to the tournament.
“It was fun to see everyone’s tactics and how they play and how different we are from them,” said 14-year-old Lake Bluff Middle School eighthgrader Kendall Krieger.
The trip was another step in validating the work of Harrison, who was exposed to the game by his parents at the age of nine. Like a prodigy who watches a street musician for two minutes and immediately sprints to the guitar store, Harrison was fixated from the start.
He rose through the ranks in England, becoming a junior team captain, turning pro when he was 16. He then became a coach, moving to the United States in 1993. He saw in America what was missing in England — an opportunity to teach a sport in a country more open-minded to new recreational pursuits. He was hired by the Onwentsia Club when they built new courts in 2001.
Here’s how far he’s come — there’s now 75 youths (14 and under) who come through Onwentsia’s doors every week. You throw in more than 100 adults and you’ve got a real community of squash players.
“He’s the best coach, especially for women, I’ve ever met,” said Lori Fisher, whose son, daughter and husband take lessons from Harrison. “He’s very patient and gives great advice. It’s a wonderful life experience.”
That’s what Harrison has done with the sport; exposed it in areas that would otherwise never see it. He began a program where squash is played in urban areas in Chicago. There are now 75 kids participating. Although the sport is played in 170 countries worldwide, he says the United States screwed up when it did not vote squash into the Olympics a few years ago.
“It’s a sore spot. We missed out this time,” said Harrison.
But that won’t slow him down. In late March, Onwentsia is the main site for the Chicago Adult Doubles National Tournament. Next year, he plans on taking a high school-aged team to nationals. He also wants to fly a group of players to his native England, where they can visit his homeland and witness firsthand why he evangelizes about the sport they spend hours perfecting.
“I train them twice a week and they take individual lessons,” said Harrison. “I have to give them a goal. Without a goal, they are just playing for fun."