CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- One player on the men's squash team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology ended the season with a national ranking -- among women.
Amalia Londono, a 22-year-old graduating senior from Medellï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½n, Colombia, played on MIT's men's varsity squash team for two years, beating male opponents from Army, Navy and Brown, and even capturing the team's Most Valuable Player Award in 1998 with her 16-4 record.
Ranked number 31 nationally, she's only competed against three women this year, all during the national championships. In fact, the 5-foot-3-inch Ms. Londono had only played squash a few times before arriving at MIT. But she didn't let that stop her from trying out for the men's junior varsity squad (MIT doesn't have a women's team) and working daily for two years to earn a spot on the varsity team her junior year.
"She's one of our toughest competitors; she just doesn't have a bad day on the court," said Associate Professor of Physical Education Jeff Hamilton, who has been the men's squash and tennis coach for 12 years. "She was fairly dreadful her freshman year. That says a lot to the amount of hours and diligence she put in. She made phenomenal improvement."
Ms. Londono learned at an early age the importance of diligence in sports. She began riding horses at her grandfather's farm when she was two years old, competing in horse shows at age 11, and at age 16 she earned the title of Colombia's national horse-jumping junior champion.
"I rode two to three hours every day, and there was a competition almost every weekend. It was a very time-consuming sport," said Ms. Londono, a chemical engineering major who plans to get a PhD in biomedical engineering after taking a few years off to work.
"When I came to college, I really wanted the competition [in a sport]. And I needed something that I would have to do for about two hours every day, to organize my day. I liked racquet sports and chose squash over tennis because it's faster-paced."
This year she held the ninth position on the men's varsity team (out of 10) and beat a seeded woman player in the Women's Collegiate US Championship to earn a national ranking for herself.
Ms. Londono gives a lot of the credit for her success to the junior varsity coach who encouraged her, Dr. Mark Johnson, a principal research engineer in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. In addition to his teaching and research workload, he coached the junior varsity squad for three years out of love for the sport.
"She was weak, fragile and slow when she began. But she was very, very, very determined," said Dr. Johnson. "On many days after practice, she would stay and play for several hours. I thought that was nice, but I never thought she would be a good player. I was shocked at the improvement she made over that first summer."
"The refreshing thing is that everybody was really supportive of her and of each other," Professor Hamilton said. "Amalia didn't behave differently and the guys didn't either. It was really remarkable."
"It affected my opponents more than me," said Ms. Londono, who won her first match against Navy at Annapolis. "That poor Navy guy. I suspect his teammates bothered him a lot afterwards," she said with a chuckle, adding that traveling with the team was never a problem. "That trip to Navy was a little bit strange because all the guys stayed in a bunk room. I was given another room by myself way down at the end of the hall. It was just me in a big room with a bunch of empty beds."
She wasn't the first or the only woman to play on the men's junior varsity team, but she is the first to play regularly on the varsity team. Carol Matsuzuki (SB 1996), who is now the women's tennis coach, played squash as an undergraduate, and also placed in the top 32 in the country.
"Like Amalia, I participated in the squash nationals. It was the only time I actually played against other women," said Ms. Matsuzaki. "Amalia, just like myself, learned the sport from scratch at MIT."
Ms. Londono said competing against women in the squash nationals was a true challenge because she had no experience playing against them.
"Women play riskier squash than men," said Ms. Londono. "They move the ball a lot more and their shots are a lot less predictable. But men hit harder."
Coach Hamilton agrees that differences in play exist. "Men play with more power, less finesse. Women's squash is more tactic-oriented," he said. But he cautions against making too much of the differences. "You could have a highly ranked woman who would beat everyone on the [men's] team."
He said it's unusual for a woman to play on a men's team, but it's accepted in some intercollegiate sports under the NCAA Title IX regulations. Squash is not currently governed by the NCAA, but, according to Professor Hamilton, it's headed in that direction. He added that the Coast Guard Academy had a woman on its men's tennis team this year.
MIT's sailing, skiiing, rifle and pistol teams are coed. In addition to those four teams, the Department of Athletics, Physical Education and Recreation offers 20 men's and 15 women's intercollegiate teams, as well as a wide range of club teams and intramural sports.
"It's really difficult to have a coed sport in a discipline where size and strength make a difference," Professor Hamilton said. "Most undergraduate women just aren't going to be comfortable trying out for a male-dominated varsity team."
"Amalia is a rare breed. I don't think most women could do what she did," he said.