Barnes makes a racket for women in sport

  • Moving forward: Rachel Barnes regained the MHB National Squash Championship at the Bermuda Squash Racquets Association in Devonshire last month

Photograph by Blaire Simmons

    Moving forward: Rachel Barnes regained the MHB National Squash Championship at the Bermuda Squash Racquets Association in Devonshire last month Photograph by Blaire Simmons

Rachel Barnes was almost destined to be Bermuda’s best female squash player, but she is more than just the national champion. In what she says is “male-dominated sport”, Barnes is determined to close its gender gap.

She regained the MHB National Squash Championship last month at Bermuda Squash Racquets Association — where she “grew up”. The 2016 champion beat Laura Robinson 11-7, 3-11, 11-3, 11-5 in the women’s final this year after Susie Lacey won last year’s crown, but Barnes does just as much off the court for the women’s game.

“It’s really tough because traditionally squash is a really male dominated sport,” she said. “There are a lot more male pros and there are a lot more resources for men’s events, so I’ve recently got the club to commit to a more gender-equal situation where we have the same-size trophies, we have the same air time on show courts, we have the same coverage on social media.

“We’re seeing events that now have a more equal ratio, so when we bring down men’s pros we’re going to bring down women’s pros as well. And you can always be better about that sort of stuff. You can always make it more even, but we’re definitely improving.

“Bermuda’s so diverse and it’s so easy to be diverse in such a well-rounded environment like Bermuda, so all you have to do is open the doors and they’ve got everything more inclusive and it shouldn’t be that difficult to do.”

Barnes is also on the Bermuda Olympic Association’s Women in Sports committee and says they are “getting a lot of stuff done” and is encouraged by role models such as Flora Duffy.

“That’s been a really interesting experience for me,” she said. “It’s basically been one representative from every sport on the island. We all get together once a month and brainstorm, create events and come up with ideas to make sports more inclusive to women.

“It’s been really interesting because a lot of the struggles that I thought were unique to squash are genuinely felt around the entire island. It’s tough, because Bermuda’s really old school. But we’ve got some really passionate people on the committee and we’re getting a lot of stuff done.

“Just watching Flora this past year has been insane. She’s so awesome, but looking at her, you imagine how much harder she’ll have had to have worked than her male counterparts and it’s inspirational but it’s also a bit frustrating, like: ‘why are we still thinking about this, why are we still doing this?’

“I’ve had so many difficult conversations with people at the club, and just say: ‘Look, this is what we need to do and this is my focus and priority. I know you don’t necessarily agree with it, but let’s move forward and let’s make an effort.’ It’s a lot about educating people. It’s difficult to explain where the inequality comes from.

“We were lucky enough to have a couple of female pros when I was coming through and they were really awesome. We had Jane Parker, who taught me how to play squash when I was a toddler. And we had someone named Denise Sommers, who was a great influence, and then Runa Reta, who left a year or two ago. It’s always been great to see women in those roles.

“We don’t have any currently, but Micah {Franklin, the BSRA Touring Squash Professional] and Patrick [Foster, director of squash] are really good at listening to me on what I think we should be doing. We also have a couple of local players, like Denise Kyme, who is Nick Kyme’s mother, she taught him how to play, and her name is on all those boards.

“She’s just been really cool and she’s got international ranking. She goes to all the masters tournaments. So that’s been really inspirational. Also, the mothers of the junior players: I find that having older people who have gone through what I’m going through, they’re equally as frustrated and have tried to influence things in the past. Just having their perspective has been really interesting.”

Barnes has had a lifelong association with the sport, and the BSRA club in Devonshire, so it is probably no surprise she is as good as she is.

“I kind of grew up at this club,” she said. “I’ve always lived in Bermuda, I was born here, my parents hilariously met here, so my older sister and I have been playing squash since we could walk. We played all throughout Cavendish and earlier years in the junior programme — they have a great girls’ programme here.

We went to boarding school in the US and then I played in college [Bowdoin College, in Maine], came back three years ago and have been playing here. Squash in the college in the US is all one division, so you end up playing against some really impressive people, so that was an awesome experience.”

Indeed, she grew up as one of the club’s “Court Rats” — the youngsters who have the delightful job of cleaning up the players’ sweat during the big tournaments, which most of the young players do.

“That was a really cool experience when you’re young,” Barnes said. “You get to interact with the professional players, meet them, talk to them, clean up their sweat! It’s a cool atmosphere.

“We don’t have any issues getting girls in the door when they’re younger. We have a junior programme which happens throughout the school year one day during the week and then all day on Saturdays. That’s busting with boys and girls. We mix them together when they’re younger, so that’s really great for socialising.

“We also have girls’ programme one day a week and that is completely packed. It probably goes until 15-6 years old. A lot of girls and boys end up going away and playing at boarding school and playing in college, so we kind of lose them at that age group. The ones that stay, a lot of them drop off at about 18, just because school gets in the way, your job gets in the way and so much other stuff. And we have lots of other ladies’ events for older women.

“We have a ladies night each month and we have women coming down for exhibitions. We’ve got a big presence from the older end, it’s just the younger end we have to work on.”

Barnes, who has English parents, cannot represent Bermuda in certain events, though.

“It’s really tough, because I was born in Bermuda, my parents were on work permits, then they got PRC,” she said. “I got permanent residency when I was a teenager, so I was allowed to live and work here, but I still haven’t been able to get status, so that is what stops me from playing.

“They recently got status a couple of years ago, so I’ll be able to apply for it in seven years’ time, but then I’ll be in my mid-thirties and it’s not really the time to pursue a squash career, but I’m working on it. It’s an ongoing conversation. The Bermuda Olympic Association are open to discussing exceptions to that ‘Bermudian only’ rule, but it is really tough.

“Typically, [other countries] just say if you’re a resident and have lived and worked there for a certain number of years that you can participate, and most tournaments are OK with it, like the Caribbean tournaments are OK with it. Commonwealth Games is not OK with it, I don’t think, and neither are the Central American tournaments. A lot of the time, the limitation is coming from Bermuda itself; they want only Bermudians. Which is fair, I understand they want Bermudians to be pushed, and that’s awesome, but in most places I would be considered Bermudian.”

It is clear that Barnes has a lifelong love affair with squash.

“You’re constantly thinking about your own game and improving yourself,” she said of her sport, “You need to have the motivation and this teaches you the discipline to work on improving yourself.

“On top of that, you need to be prepared for whatever your opponent’s going to do, so you need to have a back-up plan and a game plan and this helps you come up with ideas about what you’re going to do. [Then] you need to execute it.

“So you need to have all these plans, all this training together and then you need to be able to get on court with all the things that are distracting you and everything else going on in your life: all the emotions/nerves, you need to be able to balance it all, so this has been a really great thing for me to just learn how to process that information all together. [I am also] part of a really awesome community, socialise with people and meet awesome people.”

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Published Jun 6, 2018 at 8:00 am (Updated Jun 5, 2018 at 10:31 pm)

Barnes makes a racket for women in sport

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