March 6, 2007

Living the Dream, Kind of

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It’s that time again — right before spring break — when seniors are shoring up their plans for next year while the rest of campus is in a frantic search for that perfect internship. While I’m excited (okay, “excited” is a too strong a word here — sorry future employer) for my desk job in New York City next year, I can’t help but feel sad as I finally let go of my childhood dream job — to be the starting catcher for the Chicago Cubs.

I’m not saying I’m completely bemoaning my future career in finance. But then again, growing up, I did always wait around for my dad to play catch, not to go over income statements.

Now, I probably should have gotten these dreams out of my head early on, especially after my pediatrician — following one of many childhood sports injuries — explained to me that I was designed to be a “professional, not an athlete.” At first, I ignored him to my own peril, resulting in a series of embarrassing accidents ranging from a tragic windsurfing fall to tearing my MCL playing soccer in high school gym class.

However, my favorite — or most humiliating — incident had to be when my head was stapled back together after I jumped into the bottom of a basketball hoop. It sounds impressive, except the rim was only seven feet high — and I did it while trying to block the shot of a six-year-old kid under my supervision. The orderly in the emergency room that day was much less impressed when I added those minor details to the story.

Anyways, I think you get the point — I was never intended to play sports. However, other Cornellians have gotten the chance to follow their childhood dreams down that path. To understand the dedication that it takes to make those aspirations come true, I recently chatted with former Cornell and current professional squash player Matt Serediak ‘06.

Serediak graduated from Cornell as one of the most decorated squash players in program history. Earning both selections in his career here, he played in the top spot in the Red’s lineup for almost his entire career on East Hill.

Though he’s had his share of setbacks, such as dealing with multiple injuries while at Cornell, Serediak always kept an eye on preparing for a professional career. Currently ranked 197th in the world and beginning to make a name for himself on the world tour, it appears that all work is paying off.

Here’s what Serediak, currently based out of Toronto, said about chasing down his dream and turning it into reality:

Reich: How long have you wanted to play professional squash?

Serediak: I’ve wanted to play pro squash ever since I was about 16. I’ve always wanted to be a professional athlete. I remember being a kid and wanting to play pro hockey and football — I just fell in love with playing squash.

Reich: How did you prepare for your career at Cornell?

Serediak: I would prepare for it by doing two-a-day workouts, six days a week. My mindset was that if I’m going to play professionally, I’m going to be working out three times a day, so I better do at least two while I’m here. I also didn’t want to lose ground on the competition. Everyone says that going to college is the end of your pro career because you get older and don’t get valuable experience. So, going into it, my mindset was to do everything I could to make up as much ground as possible — 8 a.m. track workouts, weights and extra court session — whatever it took. I also tried to compete in as many pro events (as an amateur) as possible and used my summers to train full-time — I needed to spend as much time training as I could and the summer was the perfect time to step it up.

Reich: What’s your life like now? How’s the balance between trying to make it on the tour while supporting yourself in the mean time?

Serediak: I teach to make sure I’m making enough money to pay my bills and afford travel costs, but I only teach as much as I have to. My view is my training and competing is my real job, so that comes first. It’s tough teaching lessons — it ruins your game a bit because your feeding and putting balls really high so the student can get them. It’s also mentally draining spending extra time on the court when you’re already exhausted and having to turn off that competitive switch. The head professional at the club where I work is great, though, and understands what I’m doing, so I can take off time to compete whenever I need to.

Reich: What’s your experiences been with having a professional sponsor?

Serediak: Having a sponsor is great. I have one sponsor right now — Black Knight. They really take care of me. Anything I need, I just call them up and they take care of it right away. It makes you feel special when a company believes in you and helps you out.

Reich: What’s the biggest difference between your life now and your life in college?

Serediak: The biggest difference is how I approach things. In school I always worked hard and pushed myself, but I never slept enough, drank way too much and could have eaten healthier. Now I make sure I always get lots of rest. I’ve had a nutritionist analyze my diet to make sure I’m eating enough of the right foods, so that I recover fully faster. I hardly go out and party anymore — though at the end of a tour or when I have a few weeks off, I still go out and indulge in the Toronto nightlife. You still have to be human. For the most part though, I’m just a lot more disciplined. I do two on-court sessions, with either weights, fitness, or a yoga session mixed in every day.

Reich: How’s life on the tour?

Serediak: I love the traveling aspect of my job, but the worst thing is the downtime. You go to some foreign city and you’re not playing until six at night or later, so you have a light workout at 10 a.m. and then have the whole day off. Its fun hanging out with the other guys your competing with, but the constant sitting around just drains you mentally. It’s also tough to keep your brain from turning into mush, so I try to read as much as I can.

I’ve also been fortunate to see some really cool places all over Canada, the U.S., Mexico, India, England, Scotland and Australia. The list is only going to keep growing. I’m planning to do some touring in Brazil and South America this summer.

Reich: How far are you willing to push yourself to where you want to be?

Serediak: I’m willing to do anything to get my game to the next level. If me or my coach thinks there is something I need to address, I’ll go out and do it immediately. Right now I’m working on my flexibility, balance and strength when I’m in different positions. I’m working with an ex-ballerina to really improve these areas. She also recommended doing yoga, changed my weight-training program and has me on a really strict stretching routine. Our plan is to get me as flexible as a hockey goalie. The stretching plan is the most painful thing I have ever done. It’s not like a court session or a match. This is a controlled constant pain for over an hour a day. It’s not fun, but I have already started seeing big gains in it.

Reich: So, after all this work, how happy are you with your results on tour and where you are currently?

Serediak: My year has gone well so far — I’m still pushing to make my goal to be in the top 100 [in the world squash rankings] by September 1st. I’ve won two pro events this year and have had some very solid results on the tour. I just need to keep working. Life is tough — it’s a daily grind. I’m always constantly pushing myself to exhaustion and then a little bit extra.

However, at the same time, life is amazing. I love waking up everyday knowing when I go into work, I’m doing something that I love.

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For those of you out there with any dream career in your heart, I hope this inspires you to go after it. Determination and persistence does come back to you with benefits. And, you can’t beat doing something you love.

So, while I may never get that professional contract — I’m still hoping my pitching prowess in intramural softball turns into a minor league contract somewhere — good luck to everyone else who, like Serediak, knows what they want to do and are working their way to it.