by Tom Utescher
Still a few months away from her high school graduation, Chestnut Hill’s Olivia Fiechter has already secured her status as one of the best squash players the Philadelphia area has ever produced.
When Germantown Friends School allowed her to begin playing on its varsity team as an eighth-grader, she immediately took over the number one spot. She went through the regular season undefeated, beating the reigning scholastic national champion in the process. She then lost one match at the Mid-Atlantic championships and another at the high school national championships, both to much older players. From ninth grade on, she never suffered a setback in scholastic competition.
In tournament play against elite athletes from around the country, she won the Under-13, Under-15, and Under-17 national championships. In the U.S. Open Championship, which includes competitors from other nations, she has claimed the title in both the 15’s and the 17’s.
She represented the United States at the Junior World Championships in 2011 (in Boston) and in 2013 (Poland), and each time the American side placed second overall, the best finish ever for any U.S. team at any level. In between, she earned an opportunity to play among an international field of elite adult players, becoming a member of the U.S. team that played at the 2012 Women’s World Championships in Nimes, France.
At GFS, she found time to participate in varsity tennis as well as squash, helping the Tigers win Friends Schools League titles in 2011 and 2013. She’s heavily involved in student government (serving as president as a senior), leads admissions department tours, and has been active in the annual Pediatric Cancer Squash Fundraiser.
Other schools would have loved to have been able to lure her onto their courts, and when she began the college selection process, representatives from the Ivy League universities and the other top squash programs were practically camped out on her front lawn. Last fall, she picked Princeton University, where she should immediately be in contention for the number one position on the team. In tournament competition, she has already defeated the player who currently occupies the top spot at Princeton.
“Her technique is phenomenal,” states GFS coach Adam Hamill, head pro at the Germantown Cricket Club. “Her natural ability to strike the ball, her hand-eye coordination is just off-the-charts. She hits such a clean squash ball, she makes it look effortless. While everyone else is out there swinging as hard as they can, she’s just putting the ball wherever she wants with great ease.”
“Physically, she’s a very strong girl,” he said of the 5’8” Fiechter. “She’s able to use that to really generate pace on the ball. One thing that differentiates her from other players is her ability to not just hit it hard, but also to vary her shot selection greatly. She mixes up what she does a lot, and that’s a huge part of her success.”
When she was in training with the Junior Worlds team in 2011, U.S. coach Jack Wyant (the head men’s and women’s coach at the University of Pennsylvania) remarked, “She uses all areas of the court really beautifully. She can come at you hard and low, and then high and softer. She’s a little like [then Philadelphia Phillies pitcher] Cliff Lee in terms of having command of the ball and of the speed at which she plays. From that standpoint, she’s difficult to play against.”
For the past seven years, Fiechter has been taking individual lessons with Damon Leedale-Brown, the director of squash at Penn Charter.
“Olivia has a lovely feel for the court,” he pointed out. “She has very good wall/court awareness, which isn’t common among the juniors. I think some of that comes from not just taking lessons all the time when she was growing up, but also having the freedom to simply play and explore the court. She has a good sense of when to play into certain spaces.
“She has great touch, very good technique in terms of her control of the ball,” he went on. “She has an understanding of using height, varying pace on the court, holding the ball, changing angles – all designed to disrupt the rhythm of her opponent. As she got older, we talked a lot about tactics; match strategy, shot sequences, playing against opponents with different styles.”
Fiechter recalls that she first picked up a squash racquet at the age of five. Her parents and grandparents were tennis players. Her mother, Stacy, was a multi-sport athlete at Springside School, and her father Bayard, played a little squash at Trinity College.
That was in the days when the old American “hardball” style of the game was predominant here, before the international “softball” standard was adopted and before Trinity began the overseas recruiting that would turn the Hartford, Conn. school into a powerhouse. Fiechter’s older brother Sam, 22, played a number of sports, but she’s the first one in the family to focus so seriously on squash.
She grew up just a few blocks from the Philadelphia Cricket Club, and she related “I started playing squash at the Cricket Club, and they have an amazing program for junior players, so it was kind of easy to fall in love with it. I met so many friends through playing there.”
Just as there are dedicated “gym rats” in basketball, there are young squash aficionados referred to as “court rats,” and Fiechter became one of them. At first she just spent a lot of time hitting the ball around and attending clinics, then she began to take lessons at PCC, mostly working with longtime club pro and instructor Bill Lane.
“He taught me so much, and he was almost like an uncle to me,” she said.
“He took a group of us up to Grand Central Station to see the Tournament of Champions (glass-walled courts were set up in the main concourse of the historic train terminal), and he’d show us videos of matches between some of the top pro players. He had a big role in my love for the game.”
Quickly surpassing the level of play of most girls her age, or even close to her age, she played with older girls, with boys, and then with some adult players. Rich Sheppard, who attended Chestnut Hill Academy and has now coached the Springside Chestnut Hill Academy girls squash team for many years, has known her just about all of her life.
“I knew her parents, and I saw her when she started to come over to the club,” he recalled. “You could clearly see she was advanced for her age; her eye-hand coordination was superior, and she had a very gifted racquet. She put in a lot of time at the courts, then as now.”
Fiechter participated in all manner of sports in her early years. She played a little soccer, but liked baseball better, competing within the Chestnut Hill Youth Sports Club program. She was also active in golf, tennis, and lacrosse. Gradually she chose to concentrate on the racquet sports, particularly squash. She participated in middle school lacrosse at school, but then gave it up as she entered upper school at GFS. She still enjoys golf as a recreational activity, when she can find time to play.
With the U.S. Squash junior national championships extending the season right through March, she decided that she needed to take some time off in April and early May before going back into training.
She had started out attending Springside School, like her mother, then switched over to Germantown Friends for the beginning of her fifth-grade year.
“When I was younger, my practice partner was Sam Conant [another Hill native who was already at GFS], who is a year older than me,” she related. “He said I should have a look at GFS, so I did and I loved it.”
Although the school enthusiastically recognizes her accomplishments, she’s grateful that she’s never received “star treatment.”
“There are so many people there who excel in different areas and pursue their interests with the same passion I have for squash,” she explained. “There’s no reason I should receive special attention.”
At age 11, she began to work with Leedale-Brown, who was then based in Wilmington. Once or twice a week, Fiechter would travel down to Delaware to train with him.
“I reached the stage where I knew I loved the game, but I also knew that if I wanted to be successful in tournaments, I’d have to work on my footwork and my fitness,” she explained. “I had heard about Damon and that he had been the trainer [conditioning expert] for the English National Team.”
From the start, recalled Leedale-Brown, “The main thing I noticed was her passion for the game. I saw I was working with a youngster who really enjoyed the sport and wanted to be as good as she could possibly be. It was great to see that she had fun on the court and that she was willing to experiment, as well being willing to work hard.
“One thing that was important,” he went on, “was that she spent a lot of time on the court a lot either on her own or just with another player, sort of figuring out the game. I think that helped her become a creative player. Part of that, and this was a key thing, was that her parents have always been very supportive, but have allowed her to find her own way in the sport.”
As Fiechter noted, “My parents have always told me, the second you don’t love the game, put down your racquet. I’ve been very lucky not only to have had great coaches, but also to have my family and my friends, who always supported and motivated me, but never pressured me.”
Locally, she put in some time with Tina Rix, who had been a member of England’s world champion Under-19 team in 2001. Rix was working at the Chestnut Hill Academy Springside School squash club at the time (now the Philadelphia Squash Club), and now is Director of Squash at Epiccopal Academy.
A few years after she started training with Leedale-Brown, he moved to Chestnut Hill and became head of the squash program at Penn Charter. Fiechter also made regular trips over to the Main Line to receive instruction from former Australian pro Karen Kronemeyer, who has built Baldwin School into the premier high school girls program in the Philadelphia area.
At first she worked with Leedale-Brown primarily on conditioning and court movement, but now she focuses on all areas of her game with the various coaches she consults.
“People think I just work on certain things with Damon and other things with Karen, but it’s really an all-round approach with both of them,” she said. “They’re both on the same page as far as developing my game, so it’s been a great experience.”
Coaches at other schools would’ve been thrilled to have seen her transfer into their programs, but she felt she already had a great situation at GFS. Hamill, the Tigers’ girls coach, is a former star for the Scottish junior national team. He has been coaching in the U.S. Squash junior men’s program since 2007, and two years ago he was named head coach for the junior national men’s squad.
“The coaching is phenomenal with the GFS team,” Fiechter said, “and the girls on the team are extremely close and I love being with them. It’s been a very positive experience for me.”
Hamill has been coaching the varsity girls at Germantown Friends for the past three seasons. For many years, the Tigers’ teams have operated out of the Germantown Cricket Club, where Hamill is also based.
“Through my involvement with the U.S. program I had done some work with Olivia before I began coaching the GFS team,” he related. “Of course, I was aware that she was one of the top players in the country at every age group while she was growing up.”
He reflected, “One of the things that surprised me the most was her willingness to be involved in high school squash. High school squash is improving, but there’s still a huge divide between the level of the top juniors like Olivia and the level of the high school game as a whole.
“Many of her counterparts have tended to just work with their own personal coaches and focus on themselves. Olivia’s been great with the GFS team. She’s been the captain for the last two years, and she’s there every day going through our whole practice, even through she’d been putting in a few hours of training somewhere else on most days.
He continued, “It’s incredibly surprising and refreshing to see a young lady with the skills she has willing to give so much of her time and knowledge to other players. She cares deeply about the team and sees the value of playing for her school, and that’s fantastic for the younger players to see. She could walk around like she owned the place – she’s that good – but she just gets right in there with everybody else.”
SCH’s Sheppard is in agreement here, and he observed, “So many kids with her talent pursue their own agenda. She didn’t do that, and she not only played squash for her school team, but tennis, too. That’s rare, and it says as much about her as her abilities with a racquet.”
Fiechter says that currently, most of her teammates on the U.S. Junior squad also play for their high school teams, so she could be part of an encouraging trend among the sport’s elite young players.
Like a number of accomplished adult athletes who frequent the local squash venues, Sheppard has actually spent a fair amount of time on the court playing against the GFS standout.
“She makes it look easy, she’s so smooth and efficient out there,” he remarked. “If you give her any opening, she’s going to punish you. She can make you work so hard if you don’t really hit it tight.
“I played with her recently,” he continued, “and I played with some of the guys on the SCH team [the top team around Philadelphia and third in the nation this year] and she could play with any of them. She might not beat all of them, but she’d beat many of them. Just as important, she’ll play with girls who aren’t as good and help them. She’s just a class act; she has time for others, and she’s very modest given her abilities. She knows how good she is, but she doesn’t need to tell you how good she is.”
Continually facing older players has helped Fiechter gain a maturity beyond her years, as have her squash-related travels around the U.S. and Europe, and to more exotic locations such as the nation of Qatar.
“I’ve been exposed to a lot of amazing things through squash,” she said. “I’ve been able to travel and meet a lot of very interesting people. You learn a lot about other cultures, and also about yourself, and obviously that’s a very beneficial experience.”
In juniors and scholastic tournaments, she’d played at just about every Ivy League college, but when it came time to choose for herself, Princeton beckoned.
“I love the town and it’s a beautiful campus,” she explained. They have a great coach, Gail Ramsay, and the girls who are playing there really enjoy it. When I was there, I just had a gut feeling that this is where I should be.”
In the classroom, Fiechter’s drawn to mathematics and history, and recently she’s enjoyed taking an online global class in comparative government. So, she’s a well-travelled history buff who’s been involved in student government and she’s headed to a campus that’s home to the renowned Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Is there a pattern emerging?
“It’s too early to say,” she stated. “One of the great things about Princeton is that there are so many opportunities. For me, it’s still really an open book.”
Of course, she’ll continue to finely hone her squash skills.
She revealed, “I’m always working on my consistency, on being able to win tough matches when I’m not playing my best, on digging deep in challenging situations.”
Asked about her apparent air of calm in the midst of competition, she responded, “I’m not always so calm on the inside, but I guess I don’t let it show very much. My coaches have always talked to me about how body language is a very important part of the game. My composure helps me most of the time, but there are other times when maybe I need to be a little more aggressive and have more of a killer instinct.”
To opponents, the notion of a thoroughly fired-up Fiechter must be a daunting prospect indeed.
The final act of her high-school age squash career will be played out this month at the U.S. National Singles Championships in Charlottesville, Va., and at the U.S. Junior Squash Championships in Princeton. After that, there will be some well-deserved down time.
“With my training and going to tournaments, I don’t get that much time to hang out with my friends, so I’m looking forward to that,” she said. “I’m also going to work on my golf game, and just enjoy my senior spring.”