Lob, Drop, Rail, Trickle Boast: This isn't the diction of daily work for most, but for local professional and national squash champion Pat Millman, they're part of a language she learned to love much later in life.
Prior to being introduced to the sport at age 30, Millman had hardly heard of the game. But that morning, at a club in Norfolk, England, she began playing the first of many games that led her to gain the U.S. National Masters title in the 55+ age group this past March.
Most Southerners equate "squash" with a vegetable and not with the racket sport in which two players (or four for doubles) rally for points in a four-walled court. The game takes its name from the "squashable" soft ball used instead of the hard ball, which is played in the parent game of racquetball.
In 2003, Forbes ranked squash as No. 1 on its list of 10 healthiest sports because of its "impressive cardio-respiratory workout. Extended rallies and almost constant running build muscular strength and endurance in the lower body, while lunges, twists and turns create flexibility in the back and abdomen."
The game's physical factor is just one aspect Millman of Charleston appreciates. She notes: "It's a mental sport. Even if a player is in excellent physical condition, the best strategy wins."
Millman's success results from her lob and drop strategies. Hit softly so the ball falls gently in the corners; these shots pin an opponent into limited space, leaving Millman in control of the court.
She also loves what squash helps her discover on and off the courts. "The game is a vehicle for communication and interaction," says Millman. "Because we play in a confined area, squash brings out personality. You get to know a person's characteristics, especially strengths and weaknesses. In the mental match, you target your opponent's weaknesses, while working to keep yourself safe."
Squash has allowed her to learn much about herself and those who are closest to her. She met her husband, Richard, on English courts. After her own passion for the game developed, she taught her daughter, Louise, to play. The two bonded as they traveled to tournaments almost every weekend.
"At first, I used to beat her, but it didn't take long for her to completely overtake me. It was great to spend so much time with my teenage daughter," Millman explains, "We've always been close, but that brought another level to our relationship."
On her 16th birthday, Louise beat her mother in the California State Championship finals. The defeat was a win for Pat, whose coaching eventually helped Louise turn professional. She credits her mother with her achievements.
"Because we competed against each other, it really brought out my competitive spirit. I wanted to do well to please her. I also got an incredible opportunity to travel the world with my mother."
The sport created something special between them, and Millman encourages mothers and daughters to consider how squash can benefit them. "There's a lot of interaction between you both, and that's not something mothers necessarily have with their teenage children," she explains. "In sport, it's different and the exchanges are usually positive."
This positivity keeps her engaged in squash and makes her one of the sport's most loyal promoters. Millman has helped establish and coach programs at the Rhode Island National Junior Squash Academy, Boston's Concord/Acton Club, Cornell University, the Sportsplex in Stamford, England, and at New York's Westchester Squash Club.
In 2006, she and Richard moved to Charleston to manage the Charleston Squash Club, a private venture started by Kiawah developer Buddy Darby. Since then, club membership has increased, and the Millmans continue to attract players through club leagues, lessons and clinics. They're also building a squash program at the College of Charleston. This year, they took a team to the College Nationals and hope to transform the club team into a varsity one.
Millman also wants to bring more women to the sport, but she knows this is a challenge. "Women are harder to attract because of the logistics of family commitments. One of the good things about squash is that you can get a great workout in a short time, and that's always important for them."
Now, between visits to England and the clinics she teaches in Charleston, Millman trains to play for England at the Home Internationals in May, where she will captain her country against teams from Scotland, Ireland and Wales. In August, she'll travel to Cologne, Germany, for the World Masters, where she hopes to become the champion in the 55+ group. It's a match she's been training for ever since that morning 25 years ago, where she learned the language of lobbing, a strategy that serves her every day -- on and off the courts.
Kelly Owen is a freelance writer and teacher living in Charleston.