Thursday, October 30, 2014

Fort native’s court star rising

Anika Alexander’s teenage dream involves wreaking havoc on squash courts on both sides of the 49th parallel.
The Fort Frances native, who now calls Winnipeg home, is making waves at her age level—and above—in the sport and is on track to soon make her mark in the U.S. college ranks.

At the U.S. Junior Open in New Haven, Conn. last month, Alexander reached the quarter-finals in the U17 girls’ division in a field of 128 players.
That attracted the attention of scouts from Ivy League school Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., as well as St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y.
Not too shabby for someone only in Grade 11 at Vincent Massey Collegiate in Winnipeg.
“That was pretty cool,” said Alexander, who was back on her old stomping grounds at the Memorial Sports Centre here to participate in the annual Boxing Day squash tournament.
“There’s a little bit of pressure that comes with that kind of recognition,” she admitted.
“But that’s the real world,” she added. “I know if I put my heart into doing something, I’ll get it done.”
Alexander left Fort Frances after her Grade 8 year to give herself more opportunity to nurture her squash career.
The 16-year-old is enrolled in Vincent Massey’s sports program, whose participants already have achieved provincial-team status in Manitoba.
“They let you rearrange your schedule to accommodate your sports competitions and training,” Alexander explained.
“It’s the best of both worlds,” she enthused. “I’m really lucky to have this opportunity.”
The demanding schedule of school and sports was a difficult adjustment for the teen at first. But the energetic racquet-wielding prodigy has learned to balance her obligations.
“You’re playing in a lot of high-level tournaments which force you to miss lots of school,” Alexander noted.
“But I always get back on track with my studies,” she stressed. “I bring homework on the road trips with me.
“I wouldn’t let myself slip in my schoolwork because, for me, school is right even with sports in terms of importance.”
Alexander made her first appearance at the U.S. Junior Open in 2012 and reached the round of 16 before being eliminated.
“I kind of surprised myself in 2012,” she admitted.
“I knew every match would be tough. But I found out there’s not so much distance between myself and the girls at the top of my age group,” she noted.
“It was a big confidence boost for me.”
Last year turned out to be a very successful campaign for Alexander—capturing both the junior division and the men’s ‘B’ title at the Manitoba Open, the province’s most prestigious squash tournament.
Alexander also finished fifth in the U17 division at the Canadian junior nationals in Richmond, B.C. and was seventh at the Canadian Junior Open in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. one week before her impressive run at the U.S. Junior Open.
Sunset Country Squash Club president Bob Tkachuk, who rallied from a 2-0 deficit against Alexander at the tourney here before losing in the fifth-and-deciding game, hailed Alexander as a role model for young athletes in the community.
“Anika has proven you can come from a small town and still have success at a sport,” he remarked.
“It’s not geography that holds you back,” Tkachuk stressed. “It’s your will to succeed and she has the will to succeed.
“I believe Anika will be one of the top Canadian women’s players in the years to come.”
The new year brings stiff new challenges to Alexander, though, as she will move up an age division and will be among the youngest competitors in her category—not that she’s losing any sleep over it.
“I like to play the older girls,” she said. “Even if you lose against them, you always learn something.
“In squash, I honestly never think that you lose when you play,” she reasoned.
“You always win somehow.”
Alexander was in her glory being back around her fellow Fort Frances competitors again during the Boxing Day tourney.
“I always love coming back here,” she enthused. “It reminds me of the bunch of wonderful supporters I have here.
“They’re like family.”

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