Why we play: Alex Riccio

“Why We Play” is a weekly installment where Vassar players write about what their chosen sport means to them. This week, we feature senior squash player Alex Riccio, pictured above./ Courtesy of Carlisle Stockton

Fall semester sophomore year was supposed to be a new beginning for me. A turbulent first year—both at school and at home—had left me looking to get the new year off on the right foot. But just two weeks in, my life as a college athlete was over. Or so I thought.

I was not recruited to play tennis at Vassar. I knew I would have to walk on, and if I made it, I would be a fringe player.

Ever since middle school, tennis had been the focal point of my life. Whether it was convincing my dad to hit with me for an hour or getting up at 3 a.m. to watch Roger Federer play in the Australian Open, my schedule revolved around tennis. After spending six years dedicating my life to the sport, my future as a competitive tennis player would be decided over the course of five short days: freshman year tryouts.

Yet somehow, for that entire week, I was in the zone. Before I knew it, I had made the team. I was elated, almost in disbelief. I didn’t know that this feeling would be short-lived.

My freshman year was filled with obstacles and mistakes. I resided at the bottom of the ladder, and my game was sluggish—I couldn’t find the rhythm I had discovered in tryouts.

To make matters worse, I missed the bus to an away match, which certainly didn’t help my cause. All of these problems were dwarfed, however, by health concerns at home. My dad was battling cancer, and cancer was winning. We lived only two short hours apart, and yet there was nothing I could do to help him. Suffice to say, freshman year had gone way off course.

Fast forward to sophomore year, and I was in the same position I had been in 12 months earlier: To make the team, I had to try out. This time, I wasn’t as lucky. Despite hours of desperate preparation over summer break, I never found my game during the week that mattered. Instead of focusing on winning, I was just trying not to lose. I was cut—my collegiate tennis career was over before it ever really began. I had no idea what to do next. Well, not initially.

If one thing was for sure, I didn’t want to leave athletics behind, but what other sport could I play? More important, what other sport would I be good at?

Then, I arrived at squash—another racket sport. I had never hit a squash ball before, but luckily, I had a few friends on the team who offered to teach me how to play. I immediately felt comfortable on court. Squash was a game I knew I could learn, and a game I knew I would enjoy

In a few weeks’ time, I was an athlete again. In many ways, actually, I was where I was my first year—at the bottom of the ladder, but this time, on a different team. I was ranked number 14, but I had no intentions of staying there. I wanted to be a starter, which meant I would have to jump five spots in just five months. So, with my competitive drive reignited, I started working.

As the weeks passed, my game steadily improved. With help from my coaches and teammates, I climbed the ladder one spot at a time.

Each week I didn’t start only added fuel to the fire, until I finally worked my way up to number 10, with nationals on the horizon.

Nationals host the most competitive matches of the squash season, and naturally, I wanted to be a part of them. Somehow, in the final week of practice, I clawed my way to number nine. I was a starter, and I immediately set a new goal: win every match at nationals.

Well…that didn’t happen. I lost my opening match, in convincing fashion. I played afraid, similarly to how I played in my failed tennis tryouts. To make matters worse, we lost the match 4-5.

I told myself I wasn’t going to let the same thing happen twice. But at the start of our next match, it looked like I was going to do just that. I lost the first six points—my opponent was in complete control.

Then, suddenly, the tides turned, and my nerves were gone. My hunger for winning finally outweighed my fear of losing. Before I knew it, I had won the game 11-9. I breezed through the next two games, clinching my first win, and I wanted more.

My momentum carried over into my next match, the last match of the season. I won the first game 11-4, and I thought I was on my way to another easy victory. But before I knew it, I was in a dogfight.

My opponent raised his game, putting me on the back foot. After a grueling 22 points, I lost the second game 10-12.

I loved it. Surprisingly, this became the type of match I lived for. My game elevated, and I won the final two games 12-10, 12-10. To date, it remains the match I am most proud of.

Not only did squash became a sport that I came to love, but it also reignited my passion for competition—for competing to win.

As nationals rolled around for my final year, I found myself once again locked in three tight battles, and loving every minute of it.

Squash was certainly not a part of the plan at the start of my sophomore year, but looking back now, I couldn’t imagine the past few years without it.

Sometimes, things just don’t go as planned, and that’s okay. Personally, I’m glad my plans diverged.

Squash helped me rediscover my competitive fire—and finding that fire, I finally realized, is why I play.

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