David Quintero and Sebastian Paredes, two nationally-ranked junior urban squash players, with Grégory Gaultier. (SB School of Squash photo)

Santa Barbara had the rare opportunity to host a world champion this week: Frenchman Grégory Gaultier, who flew in from Seattle after winning the 2015 Men’s World Squash Championship title the night before.

Gaultier came to town to play an exhibition match at the Santa Barbara Athletic Club against his friend Shahier Razik, who was formerly ranked #20 in the world.

Gaultier played his first match at the World Championships just two days after the Paris terrorist attacks, making for a difficult and emotional tournament, he said.

“This has been a tough week for me. I’m really exhausted,” Gaultier said after the exhibition match in Santa Barbara. “I was really hoping to do my best for Paris. I’ve gotten a lot of emails and texts from people telling me I’ve brought a smile back to the French community after this tragedy.”

For those who are not familiar with it, squash is a sport where two people, each with a racquet, hit a rubber ball inside a closed court, usually at a very fast pace. At the professional level, each point can last five minutes or more, making it a sport that demands powerful agility, strategy, talent and mental and physical strength.

According to the U.S. Squash website, more than 25 million people play squash in 175 countries.

Gaultier was previously ranked #3 in the world, but after winning the world championship, his ranking will now jump to #1. Winning the world championship is a dream come true, said Gaultier, who started playing squash when he was 4 years old, especially because he has lost in the finals four previous times.

“I’ve worked my whole life for this. Becoming world champion is something I’ve wanted since I was a kid. It’s magic.”

Gaultier also brought a smile to the 150 people, many of them children, who gathered to watch the Santa Barbara exhibition match, and who had made posters and hung a French flag at the squash courts in support of his victory.

The exhibition match was a fundraiser for the Santa Barbara School of Squash, which in addition to squash training, provides academic tutoring and mentoring to about 35 low-income students locally.

Orla O’Doherty, head squash professional at the Santa Barbara Athletic Club, and Robert Graham, executive director of the Santa Barbara School of Squash.

Orla O’Doherty, head squash professional at the Santa Barbara Athletic Club, and Robert Graham, executive director of the Santa Barbara School of Squash. (SB School of Squash photo)

During a break in between games of the exhibition match, one of the School of Squash participants, Zaira Paredes, a junior at Laguna Blanca School, stood up in front of the crowd to talk about her experience.

“It has opened so many doors for me,” said Paredes, who has participated in the program for three years. “Because of the School of Squash, I’m at a private school, and I was able to travel to Boston two weeks ago to participate in a squash tournament for women from all over the country.”

Her cousin, Sebastian Paredes, also a School of Squash participant, was at the Santa Barbara Athletic Club early the next morning, inspired by the exhibition match to practice his shots on a court by himself.

“The pros move so freely on the court and are so light on their feet,” he said. “I want to move like that!”

Orla O’Doherty, the teaching professional at the Santa Barbara Athletic Club, organized the exhibition match.

Robert Graham, the executive director of the Santa Barbara School of Squash, served as referee and added colorful commentary during the match, which was one part serious squash and two parts Harlem Globetrotter-style antics. The crowd cheered and clapped enthusiastically, especially when Razik jokingly offered the referee dollar bills to rule in his favor.

Razik, who is the seven-time Canadian national champion, plays exhibition matches against Gaultier and former world champion Amr Shabana of Egypt around the world several times a year, in part to promote the sport of squash to young people.

Razik, who grew up in Egypt but is now based in Toronto, also coaches highly-ranked juniors in the U.S. and Canada. Razik and Gaultier held clinics for children and teens both before and after the exhibition match, giving the kids pointers on improving their game.

Although squash is gaining in popularity in the U.S., it is much more prestigious in Europe and other countries. After winning the world championship, Gaultier was up all night being interviewed by French television, radio and newspaper reporters, and was featured on the front page of a French newspaper.

Gaultier next travels to Hong Kong for the Hong Kong Squash Open tournament. Not looking forward to the long flight, Gaultier was asked whether he could fly business class.

“No, I’m in economy,” he said. “I’m not a tennis player!”

Julia Rodgers represents the Santa Barbara School of Squash