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Wendy
Zaharko, First Princeton Women’s Squash Star

THREE TIMES COLLEGE CHAMPION


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February
2005, By Ron Beck © 2005SquashTalk
Photos: © 2005 SquashTalk Archives

Never Lost a Game
in College Competition

Wendy Zaharko (right) wins the Intercollegiate crown,
finalist Emily Goodfellow looks on. © ST Archives

By Ron Beck

It was the fall of 1970. Women’s lib was hot. The
Vietnam war was in full swing and College campuses, even Princeton, were
in the midst of rapid change. And it was the second year of co-education
at Princeton.

And in the middle of it all, onto the Princeton campus,
strode the effervescent young athlete from Wilmington, Delaware, Wendy
Zaharko. Wendy, a pure athlete and an engaging personality, was about
to become possibly the most dominant women’s college squash player
ever. In four years of women’s college competition, she never even
lost a GAME.

I asked her what her most memorable college game was,
and because of her dominance it was a difficult question. “As far
as playing with the women, I remember the quarterfinals of the WISA Nationals
my senior year. I was sort of fooling around in my match with my teammate
and good friend Cindy Sutter, and all of a sudden I was losing by 13-7.
Suddenly I realized, oh my gosh, this might be the first game I ever lose
in college. I became intensely competitive and fought through to win that
game.”

To get competition, Zaharko got heavy doses of playing
with the men at Princeton, and her competition with women came from a
few invitational tournaments she played in as well as the USSRA nationals.
She remembers the guys on the men’s team being great to her, and
great competition. Her regular sparring partners included men’s
team star, Arif Sarfraz and Ron Beck. “But my most memorable match
in college was a Princeton Men versus Alumni match. Coach Bill Summers
put me in at number five in the men’s lineup. So I went down to
court five, and there was a gentleman named Ed Hobler, a famous squash
figure. I got on court and he was a bit taken aback at first, but we got
down to squash and had a terrific five game battle – I don’t
remember who won – and he and I became lifelong friends.”

Jadwin Gym, quite literally the house that Bill Bradley
built, had twelve brand new, state of the art, exhibition squash courts
in the early 70s, but there wasn’t even so much as a woman’s
toilet on the “C” level in the original plans, let alone locker
rooms for women. They certainly hadn’t envisioned the likes of Zaharko,
and her coach Betty Howe Constable, in the original plans for this edifice
to male sports.

“They stuck four lockers in this little room at
the end of the building. Only four girls got lockers – and I was
one of them. So I guess I was considered a star,” says Zaharko.
“The other three lockers were for Margie Gengler, the tennis star,
another tennis player, and a fencer. Noone else got a locker. I guess
someone figured the other girls weren’t going to sweat enough to
need to change at the courts.”

Wendy Zaharko started playing squash by accident. She
was an excellent badminton player and threw the javelin. But she had hurt
her back and couldn’t hit the overheads you constantly need to hit
in badminton. Then she happened on some squash courts and started playing.
“I though squash was fun, because I didn’t have to hit the
overheads that caused my back so much trouble. After two times on the
courts, I ran into this little short guy named Dan Martella. He was about
5’4” tall, but an international squash champion. He was really
my first coach, and he inspired me to play. I was from the other side
of the tracks in Wilmington, but I started playing squash at the Wilmington
Racquet Club, and soon I was entered in women’s tournaments and
was about the best woman’s player in Delaware Even at that time
there were a few college teams – such as Wellesley and Vassar, so
I realized it could help get me into college. There was a guy named Jay
Webster (of Dee Dee Webster fame) who encouraged me to apply to Princeton,
and a year later there I was.”

I asked Zaharko what it felt like to be on a pioneering
team. “It was great really. We all realized we were breaking new
ground. I really enjoyed helping the other girls to learn how to play
and the whole experience. And Betty was an inspiration. She fought for
us all the time – for court time, for resources, for everything.”

Zaharko went on to win the Women’s Intercollegiate
Title three times. The only reason she didn’t win four titles was
because she was thrown off of the team her junior year. “I wanted
to play in the USSRA Nationals the weekend of our Vassar match, and coach
Constable didn’t agree, and I went ahead and played the Nationals,
so she threw me off of the the team.”

After Princeton, Zaharko went on to spend one year in
New York as the pro at the Manhattan Squash Club, “I played on a
weekly basis with George Plimpton, that was a lot of fun.” And she
played on the international team that went to the Women’s Squash
Jubilee in England in 1976. The USSRA singles championships always eluded
Zaharko, with the hardball game played in those days experience counted
for a lot, and she probably quit tournament play too early to have a realistic
chance at that title, but she was clearly one of the best players in the
country between 1970 and 1976.

In 1977 she embarked on a career in medicine, and the
serious squash was history. She still enjoys watching squash. Until she
moved to Aspen, Colorado, this year, to give her daughter a chance to
pursue skiing, Zaharko took in a lot of women’s squash at Princeton
and Philadelphia. “It’s still fabulous for me to go down and
watch the Constable Tourney or the top pros. I can’t help imagine
myself out there and wonder how I’d today today against those players.
I’m convinced I’d be competitive.”

Zaharko avidly pursues Skiing, Tennis, and Kayaking, is
in great shape, and still has that effervescent enthusiasm about everything
that she came to Princeton with. “I even got on the courts for the
first time in a while the other day,” she told me enthusiastically.
And Zaharko was wistful about missing the first women’s Howe Cup
to be staged on her old home courts.




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