Although Darian Rich had never played organized sports before, he began playing squash in seventh grade and stuck with it despite some friends dropping out. At one point, he became SquashWise's No. 1-ranked player.
Now, Rich is still involved with SquashWise, but has a different role with the nonprofit, youth development program located in Baltimore.
Rich, 19, joined the program immediately after graduating high school nearly two years ago to become a part-time coach and mentor. Centered around introducing squash to middle school students, Rich says tutoring and career development is part of the program just as much as the game of squash.
SquashWise now partners with Kipp Ujima Village Academy for their middle school recruitment, but when Rich attended Baltimore Civitas Middle/High School, he first heard of the program from a friend there.
"It's not a typical sport where I come from, you hear about basketball and football and things like that," Rich said. "It is hard to stick with a sport like squash [while] going to a public school and all your friends grow up around basketball and football."
Not only did Rich stick with the sport, he flourished. In addition to being the program's No. 1-ranked player toward the end of his high school career, he was also selected to the U.S. Squash top 100 boys U19 rankings. He later won the 2015 Urban Doubles Championship in Denver with Carlos Marks, after being behind two sets, to eventually win the match, 3-2.
"You can never go wrong with trying something new," Rich said. "That was big for me … for me to do that [at that age]."
Rich now works primarily with kids at that same age, mentoring, coaching and encouraging mostly sixth-graders. Also a squash coach at Coppermine Racquet & Fitness, he said coaching has helped him pay for college, and it sometimes helps his own game, but what makes his current role with the organization rewarding is when his students succeed.
Recently, one of his students won a tournament.
"I would like to take credit for [their successes] and it sounds good," Rich said. "But the good news like that makes it all worth it."
SquashWise's expectation is that 100 percent of their members will graduate high school and have college access, and Rich said those who put forth effort will be rewarded.
"The program is guaranteed results," Rich said. "If you give them a little bit, then they'll work overtime for you."
For Rich, "overtime" occasionally meant studying until 10 p.m., as he remembers doing in high school with certain members of the organization.
"Darian is a prime example of how squash can shape a person's life," said Abby Markoe, executive director and co-founder of SquashWise. "His passion for the sport is contagious."
A student at the University of Baltimore, Rich is currently taking a semester off to make sure he selects the right major in the fall. Rich said he was hesitant to pay to take more classes while weighing the options of becoming a criminal justice major or keeping his focus more toward the athletic training field.
Rich was uneasy about sitting out a semester because SquashWise generally requires that employees must have either finished an academic program or be enrolled in school. However, he was assured he would be allowed to stay onboard while he figured out the best curriculum for him.
"They have taken care of me since seventh grade until now," Rich said. "They walked me through every step, every obstacle, every challenge."
Looking back, Rich said he is thankful for what the program has done for him but is ready to move on and blaze his own trail in life.
"I want to be more independent," Rich said. "I'm going to branch out on my own. I think I'm ready to put on my big-boy pants."
Issue 232: April 2017