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Navy with Electric green logo Open Squash

Open Squash

Feb 1st 2024

Ona's Squash Story

Ona Prokes (Patch)

From New York Public School To A College Scholarship, A Career, And Beyond:

Ona Prokes has been around racket sports her whole life and is testament to their benefits. Graduating in 2021 with a degree in Entrepreneurship and minors in Sports Management and Legal Studies, she speaks Chinese and German. She also loves to tell young people about the benefits of playing squash.

"Many parents don't realize that squash offers huge benefits. As a Gen-Z woman I'm used to people thinking we can't even send an email," she said. "But squash teaches you how to schedule, how to think, how to be resilient. It teaches you to have tough conversations. It teaches you to enjoy pressure. I learned so much from the game. It made me who I am today, and I'm eager to share it."

Ona's father Roman, who immigrated to Queens from the Czech Republic, strings and customizes rackets. He spent 15 years touring with the well-known professional tennis player Andre Agassi and even features in Mr. Agassi's book Open.

"They're still friends, now," Ona said. "I remember picking up the phone to him as a child and passing it to my father."

Ona's parents, though, didn't want her to play tennis. The life of a junior tennis player can involve up to 10 hours of tennis each day. As immigrants to America—her Austrian mother Angelika met her father in the cafe at Tennis Port in Queens—they emphasized education. They saw too many professional tennis players fail to complete undergraduate degrees.

"My parents wanted three things for me. They wanted me to get a university education. They wanted me to have a sport. And they wanted me to speak a foreign language," Ona said.

Ona Prokes at Open Squash with her colleagues (Patch)

Ona (center) striking the Charlie's Angels pose with her Open Squash colleagues from left to right Adriana, Maddy, Ciara and Sarah at the recent Open Squash Grand Opening in FiDi.

"Tennis was so much fun to be around but it wouldn't enable me to do all that. I tell people squash helps your academics and it can also get you into a great college and set you up for life. It's also great fun, and after playing in college I've now enjoyed playing it in a social way. Many young people struggle with anxiety after coming through the pandemic. But I find that if I'm overthinking things, stepping on the court and playing squash is the perfect way to step out of it. If you could bottle the benefits of playing squash and sell them as a product, people would pay millions."
 

As a public school student in New York City, Ona wasn't exposed to squash at school. She laments the lack of a squash program in the city's public schools, now, in fact. She's now the Director of Operations and Head of Marketing at Open Squash, a New York nonprofit. With a mission to grow the game beyond its traditional boundaries, Ona sees potential. In particular, Open Squash offers sliding-scale, income-based discounts. It's part of an effort to remove barriers to playing the game. Right now, Open Squash has two centers, one in Bryant Park and one in the downtown Financial District. But it plans to grow more centers.

"If you could convert some of the city's handball courts to squash courts, you'd be onto something," Ona said. "It's only a question of getting rackets into kids' hands and teaching them the game. They'll love it as much as I did, and it opens so many doors."

Ona began squash at age nine when CityView Racquet Club asked her father to take over the pro shop there. He strung tennis rackets but also, CityView had a squash program. Ona dove in.

"I wasn't too good at the sport at first," Ona said. "But I'm like a pitbull. If you tell me I won't be good at something or if it's challenging, I keep going at it. And that's pretty much what happened."

The squash courts at CityView became Ona's afterschool practice grounds. She progressed fast, although she still has a key learning from those early days.

"It's so important for beginners to use the right ball," she said. "There's no point in beginners using the ball that a pro uses, because it needs warming up to bounce right. We should all encourage beginners to use a progression ball so that they can learn to swing the racket. We want them to have fun straight away, not spend too long progressing."

Ona Prokes playing at Drexel (Patch)

Ona playing squash during her Drexel Squash days

By 17, despite what she describes as rebellious teenage years, Ona was still in love with squash. She also played at the Eastside Athletic Club in Brooklyn under Adam Walker and won junior tournaments. With a high ranking as a junior she began introducing herself to college coaches. John White from Drexel University recruited her to play for the team with a scholarship. Ona helped bring the team up to the A division and Drexel beat several teams they had never beaten before. Ona was also selected for the All American team, the top 20 squash athletes in the country, during her junior career. Playing against the U.S.'s best college teams exposed her to a high level of competition and she loved the game. Her only regret is that COVID struck during Ona's senior year in college. Rather than playing her final year of squash, she graduated during a period of remote work. So, she never got to crown her college squash experience with a final year.
 

Still, rather than quit the game, Ona worked at U.S. Squash's new Arlen Specter Center in Philadelphia. It opened in 2021 and hosts the U.S. Open squash tournament each year. Ona spent two years there, rising up to Marketing and Sales Manager before coming to Open Squash in New York. Ona sees a bright future for squash in New York City and can't wait to help the game grow wider in America.

Thanks, Ona, for sharing your story with us!