By MIKE TONY
Ever since she began playing at age seven, former Penn women’s squash captain Kristen Lange wanted to be a professional squash player.
Now she’s living her dream.
Lange was a four-time first-team All-American, three-time College Squash Association Individual Championship runner-up and 2008-09 Ivy League Player of the Year before graduating in 2010.
“She played No. 1 for us in all but a handful of matches while she was at Penn,” women’s squash coach Jack Wyant said. “I think getting a very strong No. 1 is important. To some degree, it puts fear into the other team, and she did that right from the outset. Her freshman year was the breakthrough year for our program while I was coach. She was a big part of that.”
After her Penn career, it wasn’t hard for Lange to figure out what her next move would be.
“I always thought I could do well if given the opportunity to play tournaments just because I’d been successful in college and junior squash,” Lange said. “I never really took into account how long it would take to rise up the rankings because of the limited amount of tournaments. And it does get very financially costly.”
But Lange’s ascent while playing on the Women’s International Squash Players Tour circuit has been substantial. After beginning at 266th in the world in January 2011, she now finds herself 83rd, peaking as high as 77th last month.
“Hopefully by this time next year, I’ll have cracked the top 50,” Lange said.
Her pro status itself is a unique success, since she is Wyant’s first player at Penn — male or female — to turn pro in his eight-year tenure.
“While squash is a global game and it’s played by about 20 million people, there’s not a lot of money in professional squash,” Wyant explained. “There’s not a lot of money on the men’s tour, and there’s less on the women’s. What’s not easy is playing. She struggles to make ends meet.”
After graduation, Lange moved back to her home state of Washington for a year to assist her longtime personal coach, Azam Khan, in running junior clinics at PRO Sports Club in Bellevue. She currently works at San Diego Squash, where she focuses on coaching underprivileged youth in conjunction with Access Youth Academy, an urban squash program created in 2006.
“It’s an incredible opportunity since you don’t often get to combine what you love to do with service to the community, working with people who would not ordinarily get this kind of a privilege,” Lange said.
Although squash was always Lange’s passion, she has had to adjust to dedicating nearly all of her daily life to the sport as a professional squash player and coach.
“I told her if you’re going to go pro, you’ve got to jump in with both feet,” said Khan, who has coached Lange since she picked up the sport 16 years ago. “You really have to be dedicated, work hard and give yourself a two to three year window. She came to me after graduation and worked — her improved fitness and lost weight shows how serious she is.”
“She’s known how to play squash her whole life,” Wyant said. “But what she’s learned recently is how to be a professional. She’s learning how to treat the game like a job. You can’t just play when you want to play. You have to train in a diligent way, take care of your body all the time.”
Despite the difficulties of pro squash, Lange won’t be pushing the game out of her life anytime soon.
“If my body holds up, then yes, I will go on,” she said. “If I’m continually going up the rankings, obviously there’s something there for me to pursue.
“As long as I’m still in love with the sport, then I’ll continue playing.”