Lane has led Penn to a No.1 national ranking and its first Ivy League title since 1969, but the game, he said, needs to become more diverse and accessible.
By Jordan Kligman
Squash has taken Gilly Lane around the world as a professionally-ranked player and coach.
Yet, today, the game’s imperfections stand tall.
In just six years as Penn’s men’s squash head coach, Lane has led Penn to the top rank in the country and its first Ivy League title since 1969, posting an undefeated 16-0 record.
But to Lane, the game still has its drawbacks. One barrier that haunts the game of squash is the utter lack of diversity.
On Penn’s men’s squash team, there are only two players who aren’t either White, Egyptian, or of Indian descent. There are no African-American players. The same can be said with another squash powerhouse in the region, Drexel, which also has no African-American squash players.
Despite this, Drexel and Penn are leading the charge for squash in Philadelphia. In 2021, Drexel completed the Arlen Specter US Squash Center, which totaled over $40 million in expenses to complete the center, adding 20 new courts to the city.
“I think the only way we can grow is to keep building, keep expanding, keep stretching our footprint across the city, especially the more north side of Philadelphia,” Lane said.
Lane, a Philadelphia native, grew up playing basketball and baseball while going to squash clubs on the weekend with both his grandfather and father. On those weekends, he was taught the ins and outs of squash – how to strike the ball on the racket, the velocity you should strike it with, where you should place the ball – and most importantly, how to compete.
“My fire, my competitive spirit, it all stemmed from those weekends; it came from my family helping introduce me to the game I now love and put every second into,” he said.
Lane has found his story resonates with nearly every other squash player and professional he’s met.
“Having met all the competitors I’ve met both internationally and right here in the states, hearing their stories, you don’t hear a lot of ‘My friend introduced me to squash,’ or ‘At school we learned how to play squash, and I loved it.’ No, it sprouted from our families,” Lane said.
Eventually, Lane ditched basketball and baseball to solely focus on squash in high school and ended up becoming heavily recruited. Ultimately, he chose to stay close to home and attend the University of Pennsylvania.
As a player for Penn, Lane was named Team MVP, an All-Ivy honoree, and an All-American in each of his four years. In May of 2010, Lane also rose to rank No. 48 in the world.
Something of note, though, were the players he matched up against. They all either seemed to be White from the United States and England or prominently players from the Middle East and India. There was not much of an in-between.
“I rarely saw a Black player,” Lane said.
Unlike other more accessible sports, like soccer or basketball, there is a much clearer divide. In order to play a game of squash, you need to find a court, or in other words, pay for a club, buy a racket, buy balls, and buy shoes.
In the United States, there are just 1.6 million squash players, while the number of global players is a tick over 20 million. When you compare that to basketball, there are over 26 million players in the United States and over 450 million who play it globally.
“I believe that millions on millions of people venture away from squash because of the accessibility and the sheer cost of the game,” Lane said. “It’s not cheap to go to a club when you could just pick up a basketball and walk down the street to shoot hoops, or find a field and kick a ball to play soccer.”
After graduating from Penn, Lane played professionally for a few years but realized being a professional was too arduous and ventured into coaching.
Lane has gained a lot through coaching, but most of what he’s learned, not just in squash but in life, has come from his players. And to this day, Lane wonders what squash would look like if more people of different ethnicities joined the sport.
“I learn so much from my players because we all come from different backgrounds, but I can’t help but wonder if there were more Asians in the game, Latinos, Blacks, Europeans… we would all learn so much,” he said.
Lane still sees a bright future for squash, especially in the Philadelphia region due to its rich squash history and now state-of-the-art courts at Penn and Drexel. Lane will continue to coach for Penn for the foreseeable future and enjoys coaching in the city he grew up in – and vows that Philadelphia will always be the first place you think of in the United States when it comes to squash.
“When you think of squash in the United States,” Lane said, “you think of Philadelphia, and we’re gonna make sure [Penn and Drexel] it stays like that.”