Squash is not a vegetable

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Squash is not a vegetable

I was in college when I first heard of squash. The top nerd in the nerdiest academic program, accelerated medicine, played squash ?with his professor.

I played basketball at the gym ?with my buddies. Afterward, we went to a local restaurant for barbecue sauce-soaked buffalo wings and ketchup-drenched french fries. The nerd, whose last name was Baik, went to study in the library, where he parked his scoliosis-inducing backpack in a remote room. We came out licking our fingers. He came out rubbing his eyes.

Baik's now healing people and I'm writing about them. But if I ever meet him again, (and I hope it won't be on a hospital bed) it will be on the squash court. Because I have taken up the game.

It started by a conversation with a friend. After buying o-deng, fish cakes, so I could sip hot o-deng soup, I began talking about the winter blues, especially how I miss the camaraderie of team sports. A week later, along came a work assignment: Begin a series on how to beat the winter blues. Tweaked a bit, the pieces turned into how I experienced various forms of exercise in the winter; hence the title, Winter Warrior. Leading off: squash.

Squash may not be a team sport like my old friend basketball, but it's social enough ?you play one-on-one ?and it's ideal for winter. The sport has been in Korea since 1983 but really took off in the late '90s. Fitness centers across Seoul, such as the Best Member Sports Club chain, now offer lessons.

January has been particularly busy at the Best Member Sports Club, as members work off the excess kilos they put on during the holidays. To deal with my post-holiday waistline, I signed up for squash lessons.

On my first day at the Best Member club in Sinchon, the manager, Park Sang-joo, hands me a towel and gym outfit ?gray T-shirt and black shorts ?and gives me a tour of the facilities. To warm up, Park recommends simple stretches, some of which use a medicine ball. He also points to a machine that looks like a torture device. I strap my feet in, lean against a padded board, and push a button, which starts me slowly rotating upside-down. Hanging from my feet, hands dangling past my ears, blood rushing to my face, I feel like a bat. I slowly rotate upright, then jog for a couple minutes. Now I'm ready to closet myself in a room with another sweaty person.

A regulation squash court is 6.4 meters wide, 9.75 meters long and 4.57 meters tall. The three courts at the Sinchon club vary in size, though none is regulation.

Park instructs me to stand at the "T," the starting point near the center of the court. He then shows me through the proper position to hit a forehand. Elbow up, shoulders square, knees bent, weight shifting from the back foot to the front. He yells, "Junbi!" (Get ready). My first couple of hits are unsuccessful; my hands wave at the air as the tiny rubber ball fails to bounce. Whoever heard of a rubber ball that doesn't bounce? Other shots clank against the telltale or tin, a strip along the bottom of the front wall. Those shots are out-of-bounds.

After teaching me the backhand, Park throws the ball against the front wall, and I run in a half circle to hit it. After I have run in half-circles for 10 minutes, Park has me hit a ball, then run to the far wall, then back to the T.

"So what do you think?" he says. "Is this exercise?" Wiping sweat from my face, I plead for a break.

A couple days later, a manager at work mentions squash, then asks if I ever played tennis. I nod. He adds, "Tennis is fine, but the strokes are very different. With squash, you've got to think 'Statue of Liberty.'"

The swing in squash is more of a slashing motion, and once you leave the T to get in position to hit the ball, you run with the racquet lifted high, as if you were the Statue of Liberty holding her torch.

At my next lesson, this time with another student, my right forearm aches. As hard as I try to lift my arms, they want to hang straight like stalactites. Park says the soreness in my forearm is due to an incorrect grip, and he shows me how to loosen my hold on the racquet.

Once again, Park has us running semicircles, but my shot has disappeared and the racquet, a titanium Head Ti.180G, feels like a load. He quickly relegates me to the back corner of the court to practice tapping the ball against the wall. It's an exercise in control. My hits do not make a satisfying "tap tap tap" sound, but a "tap" followed by my crying out, "Oops." Standing there with a frown, half a meter from the scuffed-up wall, I wonder if the artist Kim Tchang-yeol played squash. The walls look like inspiration for his paintings of water drops.

The other student and I switch places, and it's more semicircles. Park encourages me to hit deep and keep the ball along the rails or walls. In a game, if your ball skims a side wall, it is hard for your opponent to return it.

When I finish, I head back to the bat machine and hang upside-down to loosen my arms and back.

After my third lesson, including game strategy, a friend calls on the cell phone and says, "You must feel great!"

"Yeah, I do," I say to my surprise. I am far from mastering the game. But Dr. Baik, one day, I'll see you on the court. The squash court.

The great con game and other (tell) tales

Criminals were behind the early days of squash, according to legend. The story goes that convicts in London's Fleet Prison exercised by hitting balls against the jail's walls, leading to a game called rackets, which spread to English schools and evolved into squash. The game was so popular by the early 1900s that the Titanic even had a squash court.

Price: Varies, but 250,000 won ($190) for three months at the Best Member Sports Clubs (02-02-712-7531).

Other locations: Samsung Leports in Seocho-dong (02-3470-0582), Gangbuk Sports in Wolgye-dong (02-917-1515), Seoul Club at Mount Namsan (02-2238-7666) and Marquis Fitness Center at the J.W. Marriott (02-6282-6262).

Warrior rating (fitness level from 1 to 5): 5

by Joe Yong-hee

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