Wade Johnstone started playing squash in his native Australia when he was 3 years old. In the 28 years since, the sport has left him exhausted, frustrated, lonely, perpetually broke — and very happy with it all.
Last week, Johnstone finished his daily workout and slouched in a chair at the Bare Hills Racquet and Fitness Club in northern Baltimore, where he has been the head squash pro for more than eight years. Six white-walled squash courts with glass doors sprawled in front of him. His office, which is little more than a desk and burgundy swivel chair, sat behind him.
“This is my second home,” the 31-year-old said with a laugh. “I spend more time here than at home sometimes.”
The Perth native has made a life of squash, a sport with more than 20 million players around the world that is just beginning to catch on in the United States. He has played professionally for 13 years and coached in some capacity for more than 15.
On Saturday, Johnstone defeated Mohamed El Sherbini of Egypt to reach the final of the Pro Squash Tour's world championship tournament in Detroit. He will face top-seeded David Palmer in the championship match today at 2:30 p.m.
Not many people know that Baltimore is home to a world-class squash player because not many people know what squash is. The sport is relatively unknown in the United States, but it's growing. Thirty-seven colleges have a varsity squash program, most of them small, private universities or Ivy League schools. Navy has a men's varsity team, while Johns Hopkins and Maryland have club teams.
The sport is similar to racquetball, but with a slightly longer racquet and slightly smaller ball. Competitors play in a square room and hit a hollow rubber ball off the walls at more than 150 mph. Matches consist of five games, each played to 11 points, and can last for as long as two hours.
“People call it human chess,” Johnstone said. “It's very tactical, and you've always got to be thinking a couple shots ahead. … But I simplify it in the very simplest terms: chasing a little black rubber ball in a box.”
Johnstone compared squash to lacrosse in terms of its growth potential. Joe McManus, who has been the commissioner of the Pro Squash Tour for four years, said the sport's global presence makes it similar to soccer.
“It's still a niche sport, for sure, but it really is growing,” McManus said. “Who knows what the growth could be? I think it's limitless, but the real bottleneck is access to facilities. Once people get on a court and start hitting a ball, they really enjoy the game.”
Johnstone reached the finals of the PST Bottini Fuel World Open on April 21 and will play for the Pro Squash Tour world championship today, but the sport hasn't always come easily for him. In his first junior tournament at age 12, he lost two matches and “ended up having a nice cry.” He didn't compete again for more than two years.
At 15, after his ego had healed, Johnstone rededicated himself to the sport and began training for the Australian world junior team. For three years, he woke up at 4:30 a.m. six days a week, drove an hour to a local training facility, trained for an hour, went to school and then repeated the process after his classes had ended.
He still didn't make the team.
“It was my goal. I didn't have any other goals and such,” Johnstone said. “I was pretty devastated after that, wandering around for six months, head in the sky, no idea what I was going to do with my life.”
Johnstone thought about staying in Perth and working at a local squash center, but instead he accepted a scholarship to the Victoria Institute of Sport, located on the opposite side of the country in Melbourne. He trained there from 2000 to 2004 and in 2006 and 2007.
Today, the 6-foot Johnstone is a level 2 U.S. Squash-certified coach and a member of the Professional Squash Coaches Association of Australia. He has been ranked as high as No. 65 in the world.
“He's a giant man for a squash player,” McManus said. “Usually squash players are not quite as tall, they're not quite as sturdy. … Wade could easily be a rugby player, a football player. So the fact that he plays squash is very unique.”
Johnstone is affable and relaxed off the court, but he described his playing style in matches as “quite aggressive.” He gets bored with long rallies and uses his explosiveness and endurance to wear down opponents.
A 2003 article in Forbes magazine called squash “the healthiest sport in the world,” and Johnstone is proof. He prepares for each match by getting his heart rate up to 150 beats per minute and maintaining that rate for eight minutes. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, that's roughly 80 percent of his maximum heart rate, which qualifies as a “vigorous workout.”
And that's just the warm-up.
“The whole time you're running and gasping and trying to think while you're exhausted, and that's why it's such a great sport,” Johnstone said. “To be a chess player while you're exhausted, that's the real challenge: having good choices and shot selection when you've got nothing in the tank.”
There are other challenges within the structure of the sport, Johnstone says. There's not much money in squash competitions — the winning payouts at some small tournaments barely cover travel costs — and he said he's paid more money than he's made in each of his 13 professional seasons.
He also struggles to find other players in Baltimore who can match his intensity and skill on the court. He hasn't considered moving to a more squash-friendly region because after eight years, the city is home.
“I married a Baltimore girl,” he said with a smile, “so I'm here.”
Johnstone stays sharp by practicing without headphones, which he says other athletes use to distract themselves from pain. He also coaches full time, which provides an equal — albeit different — amount of excitement on the court.
“Wade is one of those elite players that we have playing on the Pro Squash Tour,” McManus said. “For people in Baltimore, they have a jewel of a resource there, to learn the game from one of the world's best.”
Johnstone plans to play and coach for the rest of his life. His 60-year-old mother still plays regularly; and his grandfather, who is nearly 87, hits the ball by himself for a half-hour each day.
“Who knows if I'll get that crazy,” Johnstone said, laughing. “At the moment I'm still enjoying just being able to go out and compete, having fun. The reason I still play is because I love it. Always have. … Squash is for life.”