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COVID-19 Fails to Squash CISP Closing Ceremony & Awards Celebration

The Canadian Inclusivity Squash Program (CISP) – North America’s first ever inclusive squash program – refused to let COVID-19 derail its plans to hold its second annual closing ceremony and awards ceremony last week. CISP was founded by Canada’s Eric Hart alongside Lolly Gillen, who shared the hypothesis that squash can be modified, adapted, taught and enjoyed by persons with an intellectual, mental or emotional disability.

The families and friends may have been missing, including the expected balloons, fizzy drink and pizza, but CISP refused to let the challenges posed by COVID-19 squash the spirit of its coaches, volunteers and players and hosted the awards ceremony via Zoom instead.

The recipients of the awards gave heartwarming acceptance speeches after being presented with their trophies on screen, while the highlight was the surprise video presentation, featuring words of encouragement from some of the biggest names in Canadian squash, such as Canadian Squash Hall of Famer Gary Waite, former World No.12 (softball), World No.1 (hardball singles) and World No.2 (hardball doubles) and current Squash Canada President Steve Wren, and reigning Canadian Champions Sam Cornett and Nick Sachvie, together with Hollie Naughton (World No.26), Danielle Letourneau (World No.33) and men’s Canadian No.1 Shawn DeLierre, a former World No.35 known for playing in three of the four longest PSA matches ever.

*The ceremony video was prepared by Josh Ginou of squashstream.tv

As soon as the squash facility in Conception Bay South, Newfoundland, was shut down following the lockdown measures imposed by the Canadian government, Lolly Gillen, Squash Canada’s International Representative, began using Zoom every Monday to keep the CISP program going. Gillen and Head Coach Eric Hart were concerned about the athletes’ welfare during isolation, so they continued leading warm-up drills and stretches while discussing squash with their athletes.

A CISP Zoom call in progress
A CISP Zoom call in progress

The closing banquet, planned for months, is now rescheduled for the fall, but with only two weeks left to plan it, Gillen decided a virtual award ceremony should go ahead on the original date.

“We started doing a Zoom call every Monday with the kids in the program at 16:00 once the CBS Recreation Centre was shut down,” said Gillen.

“Handing out awards was very challenging, but these kids with emotional, mental and physical disabilities know far too much about challenges and have never let that stop them moving forward in life. It was awesome especially the acceptance speeches, which I asked each recipient to give after their trophy was presented on screen.

“But the highlight of the ceremony was the surprise video which nobody, including Head Coach Eric Hart, knew about. It was dedicated to coach Hart and everyone involved in the CISP Program, with words of encouragement from some of the biggest names in Canadian squash.”

Hart, the CBS 2020 Coach of the Year, commented: “Unbeknownst to Josh and those who contributed to the video, several of my players have mental health challenges to contend with. The isolation effect of COVID-19 has cut off many of their normal support mechanisms and has caused their stress levels to be elevated that much more. However, the sentiments expressed in the video have a huge impact on helping them reduce their stress levels and gain more control over their lives. My heartfelt thanks go out to everyone involved, it was amazing!”

Head Coach Eric Hart with the CISP children
Head Coach Eric Hart with the CISP children

The CISP is the first official inclusive squash program of its kind in North America and was launched in January 2019 in Conception Bay South, Newfoundland, coincidentally the first province in Canada to build a squash club in1904.

This year, CISP held its first squash tournament, sponsored by Harrow. A designated referee and 10 participants, challenged by either anxiety disorder, autism, cerebral palsy, global development delay, Down syndrome, heart defects or scoliosis, competed for the Hazel Maud Hart Trophy won my Matthew McCarthy.

CISP’s goal is to include wheelchair squash next year, while discussions are currently underway with Squash Ontario to start a CISP program in Ontario.

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