The feature story below on men's squash senior co-captain Verdi DiSesa, is part of a year-long commitment to highlight Harvard's captains and other intriguing student-athletes. For more question-and-answer features click here and enjoy the high-caliber student-athletes whom we have come to enjoy.
Senior squash captain Verdi DiSesa recently finished his career at Harvard as the Crimson completed a 7-6 season and finished fourth at the CSA National Team Championships. DiSesa, who posted six wins on the year, was fourth on the team in victories and, just as importantly, was one of the team's leaders both on and off the court. DiSesa, a Philadelphia native, now looks forward to graduating and heading off to the real world.
What is your concentration?
What are your immediate plans once you graduate?
I will be working in New York City for Goldman Sachs, Private Wealth Management.
What has athletics taught you that you can apply in the classroom? How have your studies helped you succeed on the court?
Athletics has given me the confidence to face down any challenge in the classroom and vice versa. Sports is an extension of education - an outdoor classroom of sorts - and so the lessons you learn about hard work, determination and the desire to succeed translate very well from academics to athletics and back again.
What is the hardest part about balancing academics and athletics?
Time management. Many people fail to recognize the time and energy it takes to be a varsity (or junior varsity) athlete and a full time student. What we do is no less difficult than spending hours in the lab or practice rooms at Harvard, but that often goes unrecognized. Pushing ourselves day in and day out to be both top-level competitors and students at Harvard is extremely taxing on the mind and the body.
As a captain, what do you see your role as on the team?
First and foremost, I see myself as a member of the team. It is an honor to be recognized by my teammates as a leader, though in truth each member of the team contributes something unique that helps us succeed and makes the rest of us better. Administratively, I am the link between the team and the coaches, the team and administrators and the team and the rest of college squash, I suppose. But most importantly, I feel that I have a responsibility to the other players to lead by example and help where I can, with issues both on and off the court.
How did you first get involved in squash?
Where I grew up a lot of kids played, and some of my closest friends introduced me to the game. As I got older and better, it was something that I enjoyed and had more or less a passion for. It rounded out a lot of my athletic experience, and so I stuck with it.
Besides squash, what other sports did you play or would you have gotten into as a kid?
I played a lot of soccer and mostly lacrosse as a kid. Until about my senior year in high school, I thought I was going to play lacrosse in college. It's one of the most fun sports to watch and to play, I think, and a lot like squash, which is probably why I liked it so much. Ultimately, though, squash became more important because of the time I dedicated to it throughout high school and during my year off.
Give us a history lesson about squash. What are its origins? Where do you think they came up with the name squash?
Squash originated in debtors prison in England, but then it only really had a front wall. The name comes from the characteristic of the ball and the "official name," squash racquets, explains essentially that it is a game played with a squishy ball and racquets. Most of the British Commonwealth countries play squash because, of course, they were colonized by the British, who brought the game with them. Most of the rest of the world now has some squash, though it is still concentrated in the former British colonies. As it grew and developed, the rest of the world kept the squishy ball, but the United States adopted a hard ball and changed a few dimensions of the court.
In 1995, the U.S. finally switched back and has been trying to catch up and become competitive internationally, but it is more difficult because we were so late to transition to the game that everyone else has been playing for decades. Squash has developed in to an extremely demanding game both physically and mentally and is still growing, which is nice to see, as it is such a big part of my life. For more information, there are some books out there about the history of squash - probably the best one is by James Zug, called Squash: A History of the Game.
What was your experience like when you played in the Jarvis Cup in South Africa? What other foreign places have you visited?
I am lucky to have had the opportunity to travel across the country and throughout Europe and the world to play squash. To find the best squash in the world, you must travel outside the United States. Training and competition has taken me throughout England, Scotland and Germany, as well as to the Netherlands and the UAE. There are lots of places in which squash is thriving and popular, where people play and love the game - the United States is an exception in this regard, which necessitates travelling to get good experience.
At the Jarvis Cup, playing at altitude in Pretoria and against older, stronger, more experienced players taught me a lot about the game and how people can make their styles and strategies work for them. It was truly an amazing experience being on the Midlands team and competing against some of the best players in South Africa and even some from other parts of the world who compete on the pro circuit.
What makes squash so physically demanding?
A lot of people don't realize that squash requires a high level of cardiovascular and anaerobic fitness. Combine that with the need to think creatively, positively and intelligently about every ball in every point over sometimes almost two hours, and the game becomes very challenging. It requires performing under physical strain and remaining consistent even when it seems you have no energy left, because any lapse can turn in to a lost game and a shift in momentum. Rallies can go on for minutes and every shot can build on the previous one, making a strategy complex and difficult to execute. While you're playing, you have to assert your own game while adapting to defend against your opponents. So I guess the best way of thinking about it is playing chess (thinking ahead, anticipating and adapting to your opponent's moves) while sprinting through a long-distance race.
Squash gets a break from competition that lasts almost two months between December and February. How does the team stay sharp during that time?
We try to make sure everyone plays and trains over vacation and then hits the ground running when we come back for reading period and exams. We don't have any matches and cannot practice during exams, so it gets a little difficult, but that's just something we have to deal with. But we also train hard over intersession - usually taking a training trip to Stanford - which gets us some matches and good hard sessions before we jump right in to the meat of our season in early February.
Which school is your biggest rival and why?
For all of college squash, Trinity College is the ultimate rival. They have just won their 11th consecutive national championship and went undefeated for their 202nd consecutive match this year. So of course beating them is always on everyone's mind. But since I've been here, Yale is always the most important match. We are historically very close with them, and the past two years we have lost narrowly. Additionally, they are usually the last match, and it always has some significance for rankings and for the tournament, so we get really excited to play Yale.
What has been your best or most memorable moment to date on the court?
Most recently, I was fortunate enough to win a huge match both for the team and for myself against Rochester Dec. 13. It was some of my best squash and just happened to have a huge impact on the match and for our season. But what sticks with me the most from that experience is looking back and seeing the crowd involved, especially my teammates, who would cheer the loudest and stand up to encourage me after big points. Our team does an incredible job of coming together and being supportive, which has been the most exciting part of playing for Harvard. Matches like that one, in which the team seems to be on court with me, are the ones that stick out the most.
What are some of your favorite things to do away from the sport? Any hobbies?
Relax with my friends. We have so much time dedicated to practice and competition that it gets difficult to balance work and school and friends, and often the last component suffers. Luckily, some of my closest friends are on the team, and the others are friends with them.
Who is the most famous person you have ever met? Whom would you like to meet?
I haven't met any famous people, so that's a tough one. I suppose I would like to meet the president, Mr. Obama.
Which sports and/or teams do you follow closely? Do you ever attend other sporting events at Harvard?
I love watching our men's lacrosse team. I have a lot of friends on the team and my own personal connection to lax, so I try to go to all their home games. I follow the football team pretty closely, too, and go to a couple hockey games a year, although having our seasons overlap makes that difficult sometimes.
What is your favorite place in Boston to go to (restaurant, bar, museum, tourist location, etc.)? How does Boston compare to Philly?
In Boston, I like to find new places to go since it's difficult to get out of the Harvard bubble sometimes. So, that changes from week to week. Boston and Philadelphia are fairly similar in some respects (lots of college students, old buildings, lots of culture), but Boston is a little more alive than Philadelphia.
If we stop you walking down the street, what are three things we would always find you with?
Eyes, nose and mouth.