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SAN DIEGO – It’s an unlikely pairing and an unlikely success story.

For the past 15 years, the San Diego-based nonprofit Access Youth Academy has combined academics and the game of squash to send underprivileged students to some of the country’s most prestigious universities, including Princeton, Cornell and UC Berkeley.

Now they’re opening a new 21,000-square foot academic and athletic community center in southeastern San Diego after more than a decade of operating out of La Jolla at a space at The Preuss School.

Renato Paiva, a former Harvard squash coach and executive director of the academy, said teaching the game to seventh graders on up plays a role in turning these students into college material.

“Traditionally, squash is a sport played on Wall Street or you can see it in movies and it has nothing to do with academics,” Paiva said. “But our program combines both of them. Our students spend half of the time in the classroom getting better grades and working on their academic work, and half of the time training squash.

He continues: “We’re looking for a student-athlete combination, not one or the other. The outcome is to get them into the best college possible playing college squash, which is very common in our program.

But why squash, exactly? Paiva said the sport teaches “determination and grit.”

“Squash is a very physical sport,” he said. “Once you close the door behind you, it’s only me and you playing this game and it can be very tough, but also very intelligent. Different than other sports where if you’re a basketball player and you’re tall, you have an advantage. In squash, it doesn’t matter your size, your shape. If you think about it, you have a better chance of winning.”

The academy runs try-outs for students once a year, just wrapping up this year’s sessions in May. Typically in those sessions, Paiva said instructors are looking for “the best fit,” rather than athletic ability or good grades.

Once students get in, he says it’s a 12-year ride with the academy.

“We look to kids that want to fight for their future,” he said.

More information about the academy is available online at