Taking shots with Trachtenberg

There’s an unofficial club here at GW that you won’t find on any list or Web site. Racquetball is the activity, but conversations and friendships are at its core. While the members range in age, ability and status, whoever participates is always treated as an equal. And this club will allow anyone to join … even me.

On the day before Thanksgiving, I ventured to the Smith Center at eight in the morning for my first event with the unofficial club. On that crisp November morning there were four members other than myself participating.

1. Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, GW president. It was the first time I had met him personally, and his stories were as humorous and witty in private as they are in his public speeches. On the court, however, he was quiet and focused, with an occasional smile or “nice shot.” Wearing a T-shirt tucked into his blue sweatpants, it was the first time I had ever seen him out of a suit.

2. David Watts, the executive director for the President’s Initiative on the City. He sets up the times and players for the club and wears a brace on his left knee from seven operations, but don’t let that fool you. He moves pretty darn well on the court and he was the best player there.

3. Minh Yhun, a part-time faculty member in the political science department. On this particular morning President Trachtenberg was teaching him how to say a Hebrew prayer. Though he had a little trouble with the throaty k sound at the end of melech, Yhun was now prepared to bless a cup of wine. As far as I could tell, Yhun is not teaching Trachtenberg any other languages or prayers.

4. Dr. Arthur Weinstein, a professor of medicine and the director of rheumatology at GW. He had the misfortune of playing doubles with me for two games. While I’mnot bad at singles, I had never played doubles before, and it showed. I was lousy. Luckily, he’s good with patience (sorry, the pun was too hard to pass up).

President Trachtenberg is the one constant member of the club, which revolves around his schedule, while the other members rotate in and out depending on the morning.

My first time as a member was more fun than I expected and certainly the best time I’ve had at 8 a.m. There was a nice blend of solid competition with good-natured fun and laughs – most of which stemmed from collisions or people getting hit by the ball.

It is only natural that everyone ends up getting hit with the ball in doubles, so going into the morning, I knew the chances were someone was going to hit Trachtenberg. I was just hoping that someone wouldn’t be me.

Naturally, it was. My heart stopped for the two seconds it took to realize I only nicked his side – I saw transfer forms and community college flashing before my eyes.

But he just smiled, handed the ball back to his partner, and I eventually regained a steady breathing pattern.

While the actual games were fun, the conversations that took place in between and afterward were the best parts of this club.

I ran my two brilliant sports ideas by Trachtenberg. 1) GW buys property on the National Mall and builds a football stadium. 2) GW turns the Hippodrome into a Vegas-style Sports Book.

“Do you have any legal ideas?” Trachtenberg asked. I didn’t.

All of us joked with Watts that his knee brace was just a decoy, and he only wears it to psyche-out his opponents. Trachtenberg lamented the fact that people from all over the country with no ties to GW still write in telling him how to run the University. And in a conversation about other sports, I finally found people besides me who appreciate badminton.

While everyone else was more than twice my age and makes about 100 times what my Marvin Center weekend job pays, they treated me like an equal, just as they treat all the students who play with them.

“It’s funny to see them in suits around campus,” senior Brett Kaplan said, who plays with the club a couple times a month. “The first time I met them, and whenever we play, they’re in sweatpants playing racquetball, and that’s how I always think of them.”

Brett echoed my sentiments about feeling welcome.

“Oh yeah, you definitely feel like one of the guys when you’re there,” he said.

But it’s not just guys who play, as it happened to be during my first time. Jessica Hadad, a sophomore, started playing racquetball with the club last year.

“Jessica introduced giggles into racquetball,” Trachtenberg said. “I didn’t know those were involved.”

Hadad said she had always heard what a nice, funny guy Trachtenberg was, so she just went to his office hours one day and said ‘I want you to teach me how to play racquetball.”

He complied, and now the group is collectively helping Hadad improve her game.

“I can definitely hit the ball well now, which is better than when I started,” she said.

Hadad was also impressed with the intimacy of the group.

“I’m surprised he knows me by my first name,” she said of Trachtenberg. “I only play once every couple weeks.”

Nobody in this unofficial club actually referred to it as a club. In fact, while members have been meeting for more than five years, no one is exactly sure when it started. They just meet a couple times a week, play some racquetball, spin a few yarns and have fun. Everyone enjoys each other’s company, everyone is treated the same and every so often, a new player joins them.

While it may not be listed on GWired, it certainly seems like a club to me. And I’m glad to be a new member.

Interesting in joining SJT on the court? Contact his office at 994-6500.

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