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Squash shockingly restored me to good health without drug — Jacob Esuene

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By JOE APU

The game of squash to a large extent belongs to the category of other sports still seeking to grab the headlines with the hope of one day achieving the status of an Olympic sport.

In time past, Nigeria used to be a regular at the British Open Tournament that saw the likes Wasiu Sanni, Bola Mogaji, Friday Odeh, Niyi Oyewumi, Lucky Odeh, Elizabeth Iyamu, Regina Obi to mention a few participating under the guidance of Dr. Kayode Roberts, Folarin Williams and George Etomi. 

The renewed drive by the incumbent President of the Nigeria Squash Federation, Boye Oyerinde is seeing a return to action for the game. But in far away Akwa Ibom State, there is a man who has been churning out talents and champions. He is Jacob Esuene and he speaks of his passion and why he is giving so much to the game of squash. 

Just last year in Ibadan, Oyo State, he had a total of 16 players at the inaugural JGM sponsored National Squash Tournament for U16&19 and produced a champion. Ahead of the second edition slated for 3rd – 6thApril, he says his team is ready.

Enjoy the interview.      

Sports development for most Nigerians is all about football, why the choice of squash?


Yes, it’s very true. There is so much emphasis on football, and it’s not just here in Nigeria, it’s a global thing. And if a fraction of the amount that is in football was to be invested in other sports, I believe we would make a lot of returns and a lot of impact in those other sports. A situation where billions are spent on one sport and other sports are struggling for peanuts or even struggling to stay alive, you know; it’s not a holistic and balanced thing.

So, you asked, why squash? Well, personally, I grew up playing football, playing lawn tennis, badminton, table tennis; I did some sprints in my earlier days too. Squash came a little bit much later when the weather started affecting my lawn tennis game with the rains. And at those times I would jump into a squash court and just have a feel of the game, but my turnaround moment came around when, at a very young age. 

I had just finished school and I didn’t know that my blood pressure escalated. I didn’t know. I couldn’t sleep. So, the game of squash, to summarise that story, helped naturally normalize my blood pressure, without me taking any drugs and I played consistently every day, you know? From five minutes to seven minutes, to ten minutes and as the hours increased, I could sleep better. The pounding headaches, reduced. 

So, I went back to my doctor who had examined me earlier, and he looked at me, ’cause he had pressurised me to take those drugs and I told him no, I don’t want to live a life with drugs. So when I went back to check, he looked at me and asked me what did I do and I told him I played squash. He looked at me and said please, continue playing that game. 

So that was a turnaround moment for me. If there was such a game that could have this kind of health benefit for me as a person, I’ll rather play that game and keep healthy, than to go pop some drugs from the doctor. And again, I’m not against drugs, I mean, I take drugs, you know? Medicine and all of that, I’m not against that but as we know, most of these drugs also have their side effects.

So, I have come to love the game, I have come to love the squash family, I have come to love the health benefits it provides. I can play it anytime of the day because it’s an indoor game be it under a thunderstorm, under the rain, under shine. I’ve really come to enjoy the game, so I have not looked back at lawn tennis and all the other sports, and its squash for me. 


How are you coping with the lack of attention for Squash generally?

This is really a problem because if I should take us down the memory lane, it was really bad 10 years ago and beyond, because there were times we did not even have in an entire year, we would not have a national tournament. I mean, with zero regional tournaments. 

Most people hardly even heard of a game like squash, you know? It was really bad, but I must really commend the recent leadership of the Nigeria Squash Federation president and team, in the last three tenures. They have really worked hard to create a bigger awareness for the game, to an extent that right now schools adopt squash.

So, I think if we continue at this pace, the awareness would change, and a lot more people will come to embrace the game. And of course even in the international scene, nobody can explain why squash has not been part of the Olympic Games for decades when you have games like dancing and some other recent games that are in the Olympics, and a game like squash which in my opinion, is my number one healthiest game in the world is not in the Olympics.


What is the nature of your academy and how do you cope will the kids?

Our academy is a platform where young boys and girls come in, meet, and just enjoy themselves to the game of squash. They interact, they socialize, they have their drills, have their routines, and it has created a platform that leaves them engaged always. It keeps them from social vices.

We are about seven years old, and currently have about 47 players from about the ages of five to 25 boys and girls, from nursery school all the way to university. In those early days, the children will just come into the court and ask, what is this? Is this a cinema or a gym because they had zero idea and had not heard of the game of squash. We tell them this is squash and teach them how to hold the rackets as well as the ball. Before, we knew it, the kids go to church, school and they tell others about it

And within a year and two, these kids started showing so much interest and performance in the game. Some of the recent state outings that we went that early days, they came out with trophies. Then we now exposed them to the real tournaments and they came back with trophies. Then we now said let us go national and whether it was a national tournament in Lagos, Ogun State, Kwara, Oyo they have won medals in all those places, all those places, and it’s unbelievable to think that these children are just street kids that just live around the area. 


In terms of academics, how do you create a balance for the kids with squash and education?

From day one, we tell these children, look, your academics is a priority, you cannot leave the times used to read, do your homework and substitute that for squash, you cannot skip classes, you cannot skip your exams for squash, academics is number one, squash is secondary and that balance is critical.

We have a relationship with their schools; we have a relationship with their teachers. If we have to go for a tournament during school time, we send in letters, we notify the school so they are fully aware, and when they come back the lectures they missed will be given to them, and for some of them that missed some tests, those tests will be given them. I can you that they are doing very, very well.

At every beginning of a term, as we start training, we call for their previous terms’ results. We want to see how the player is performing in school, we want to see how they’re fairing in different subjects and of course because of some of their good performance, the club has also opened up some scholarships to help them.

So they have gained a lot in some of the scholarships that have been arranged to help their parents pay their fees, buy uniforms, and all of that. So the parents also trust us and see the value added to their children, and that relationship between us and their parents and these children is very cordial. 

As we speak there are about nine of our players that are in the university playing NUGA Games. Few of them are writing JAMB and SAT. So we generally keep a closed tab on all of them and encourage them in any little way we can. 


How do you cope with funding for the Academy?

Finance is very key. From the very inception we have provided jerseys, shorts, training shoes, rackets, balls, eye goggles. We have supported these children with weekly Monday/monthly transportation, we have provided weekly meals for them, weekend meals and snacks, water, everything has been provided free. 

They don’t pay membership, they don’t pay anything whatsoever, and you will agree with me that it’s a very huge responsibility with over 45 children filled with so much interest for the game.

The central sponsorship was personal, until when it grew to an extent that we knew it wasn’t sustainable. We had to reach out to other individuals and corporate bodies that they have supported us.

Some of the tournaments we have made — whether it’s local tournaments, or regional, state tournaments — we have received support, even from international, we have received rackets, balls, drinks from Europe from UK, from individuals who have sent over to us. So the partnership and sponsorship has been quite encouraging.

There are people that view our social media handles, our trainings on Instagram, on Twitter, through our website, and follow us and are quite impressed with what we are doing locally in this little village in Eket, Akwa Ibom.

So I am very humbled by the kinds of partners we have gotten and they in turn also see the effort, they know that it’s being properly used, it’s not wasteful, it is actually going into the people that really need it, and they have stood by us. 


How best do we restore squash to rank among the top sports in Nigeria?

I think the way to go about it is to promote squash at every level by all stakeholders, from the grassroots, through all the various levels. And it’s not just a function of the Nigeria Squash Federation; it’s all the groups – the private sector and government. Because the more we engage at that level, the more acceptability comes, the more knowledge and awareness comes in, and the more people will embrace the game for what it is.

As you know, lawn tennis is a lot more popular than squash, but I believe if we engage at all levels, with all stakeholders, we can easily change that narrative. 


What is your assessment of squash today in Nigeria?

My personal assessment is that there is a lot of progress. I can tell you that there is a lot of progress from coming from a time where there was no tournament in the entire year in the country, to a time where we can boost of 21, 22 tournaments within a year are seriously impressive.

And not just national tournaments and regional tournaments, there’s a lot of PSA tournaments where Nigerians play in and gather a lot of international points for International ranking. I think this is a bold step.

Within this same period, coaches, international coaches have been brought in to train people, within the same period, referees have been sent out. There have been courses for referees to attend to really upgrade and perfect their refereeing skills. I mean, people have been certified to be able to impact the game more.

I am very positive that there’s a lot of progress that has been made and there’s still more room to make a lot more progress. 


If you’re not involved in squash, what else would you have loved to do?

That is a question that is fundamental. You see, in all of these things, whether using a vehicle of squash or any sports, it is to touch lives, it is to change lives, it is to make lives better, it is to affect lives positively, it is to create that bridge, that platform, so yes we are using squash as that vehicle but ultimately, it is to touch lives in any little way we can. And I think this is the key reason why we are here.

The Bible talks about being your brother’s keeper. Be a good neighbor, we cannot stop doing this. In our own little way, apart from using squash as a vehicle, we have tried to touch lives in so many ways. For the last 20 years we have organized scholarships, on my late father’s foundation, for the last 20 years across all principles, all professions – medicine, law, engineering, social sciences and all of that. We cannot stop doing this, at various levels, you partner and encourage people.

This, I think, is the real tenet of Christianity which we preach, and which we have to do, but I’m glad we have a vehicle like squash, and there is room to do more, and we pray we can be used as a tool to actualize this. 


Given your busy schedule, how do you relax?

I had to laugh at that. Yes, the times are quite rough, busy schedules, meetings up and down, but for me how I relax is basically spending time with my family. 

I have three kids. A boy who is 15, two girls that are 10 and nine. I generally love spending time with them and that is my best moment because they are growing so fast, they are learning everyday and just spending that time with them is golden for me. So when I’m not traveling, when I’m not having meetings, it’s to always create time and spend with them. I also like strolling at the beach, I like health sessions, sauna, massage, and just be around family and loved ones. Thank you.

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