The Squash Pro Who Grew Up an Undocumented Immigrant
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because sports can change lives.
By James Watkins
If you’re 4-foot-10, you better be good on the volley. As her opponent — the best female player in history — plays another immaculately placed high service, Reyna Pacheco swats the ball out of the air, high on her backhand in the back corner of the court — one of the most technically challenging shots in the game. She manages to out-maneuver her illustrious opponent, only to err when going for the drop shot that would have won her the point. Pacheco looks up into the crowd at nobody in particular, saying “Come on!” to herself, as she wipes the sweat off her hand on the glass back wall of the court.
Meanwhile, an overweight 50-something man with a monogrammed towel around his waist waddles behind the glass, wondering why tiered seating and cameramen are blocking his path to the sauna. This is squash, after all, and even at the world-class level, tournaments begin in a country club.
There were no squash courts, or country clubs, in inner-city San Diego, where 22-year-old Pacheco grew up. She immigrated to the United States from Mexico at the age of 4 with her mother and brother, and was undocumented until age 18. Pacheco got a green card just in time to enroll at Columbia University, where she attended on a Bill and Melinda Gates Millennium scholarship for her academic and personal achievements. In New York, she helped the Lions reach the D1 A Finals for the first (and then second) time in the young varsity program’s history. After graduating in May — becoming a U.S. citizen the same week — she became the first alumna of an “urban squash” program to turn professional in the only sport she’s ever played. She’s now ranked No. 76 in the world, and rising.
She ultimately lost that match against eight-time world champion Nicol David. The legendary David, 11 years her senior, praises Pacheco’s potential: “Her passion and determination will show through,” David told us.
At 14, Pacheco fought with another girl physically at school and was nearly expelled. “I was a brat,” she admits. The principal gave Pacheco a talking-to: At least the girl Pacheco sparred with was making something of her life — she was attending the pilot version of a new urban squash program … why couldn’t Reyna give something like that a try? Pacheco agreed to attend tryouts, if only for the free sports gear. She wasn’t a standout player from Day One, but coach Renato Paiva saw “untapped leadership potential” in the girl most at her school had written off, and visited Pacheco’s family to not only invite her to the program, but also to ask her to become team captain. Paiva recalls that there were no chairs in the house, so he sat on an upturned bucket. Pacheco’s mother and stepfather don’t speak English, and their combined salaries as a construction worker and fast-food server were barely enough to feed five children.
The urban squash movement, like similar efforts in sports like baseball, aims to expand the sport’s appeal through grassroots educational programs in poor urban areas. The first such program started in 1995 in Boston, and there are now 19 city-based programs nationwide. Rather than favoring particular natural physical characteristics, squash rewards hours of repetitive training drills and extreme fitness. The style of slog suited Pacheco. After enrolling in the program at age 14, she began waking up at 4 a.m. every morning to ride three hours’ worth of buses to the squash club to play a match before school. Post-classes, she grunted through a coaching session with Paiva, afterward often staying an extra three hours at the courts. “The drive in that girl is absolutely amazing,” Paiva says. In college, she worked part time to support herself and even now fits a part-time research job around her training schedule to help with cash flow.
Pacheco’s biggest fear for most of her junior career was her documentation status. “I cried almost every night, thinking how can I want this so badly,” she says, “and yet know that there’s a legal impossibility to it.” Much of the elite junior squash circuit takes place internationally, meaning Pacheco missed many opportunities. She was unable to fly to England or the Netherlands for top-level junior tournaments, and as a noncitizen, she couldn’t even play in the U.S. championships.
To be sure, a tough climb remains ahead. The key to succeeding in professional squash, says Amanda Sobhy, seventh in the world and the highest-ranked American squash player of all time, is surrounding oneself “with a good team of people such as squash coaches, a fitness coach, mental coach, physiotherapist and so on.” This is proving particularly difficult for Pacheco, who is not quite ranked high enough for U.S. Squash’s Elite Athlete Program, which provides financial support for coaching, health care and travel, and also assists players with schedule management. In the meantime, Pacheco must be her own manager and fundraiser. “There’s not a lot of money in squash,” says Kim Clearkin, director of national championships at U.S. Squash, “so for someone like Reyna, it’s very difficult.”
Pacheco has a plan B: She wants to become a diplomat. Her squash career is preparing her well, allowing her to tour through tournaments in China, Australia, France and elsewhere. She even headed to Switzerland as a member of squash’s four-strong delegation to the International Olympic Committee to lobby (unsuccessfully) for the sport’s Olympic inclusion. Winning on court tastes sweet, but making trips like that, being able to cross the U.S. border stress-free, American passport in hand, tastes even sweeter.
The highlight of her career so far? Finally being given a USA shirt, which had been a legal challenge rather than a sporting one. “All I wanted to do was tear up,” she says. “Everyone else had like 10!”