Peter Briggs: An Untarnished Legend:
If squash and tennis coaches wore numbers on their warmup jackets, Peter Briggs’ might read 25, for the number of years he has taught at Apawamis Club’s courts.
By Tom McDermott
If squash and tennis coaches wore numbers on their warmup jackets, Peter Briggs’ might read 25, for the number of years he has taught at Apawamis Club’s courts. Then again, Briggs might want 108 on his back, signifying the number of college and high school team captains his squash program has produced, a number representing his own measure of achievement in his chosen profession.
The Greenwich native entered Harvard in 1969 after Middlesex, where he had excelled at soccer, tennis, and squash, a game he first picked up under Lester Cummings at the Field Club on days when tennis was rained out. That was a pivotal year for Briggs and the entire country, as campuses erupted in protests, first about Vietnam, and then, seemingly about everything else related to the establishment.
Briggs believes that practicing under his Harvard coach Jack Barnaby for three hours each day anchored him amidst the protests and major league partying. His collegiate career would culminate in three undefeated Ivy League team championships and two individual intercollegiate titles. Barnaby, who spent 60 years at Harvard, made a lasting impression on Briggs, not only as a good coach, but as a superb teacher and advisor, who told his teams, “The number nine match is just as important as the number one match; it’s one point for the team.”
The star pupil did not forget the lesson. In fact, the admittedly cocky young lefthander thought at the time, “If I ever have a chance to be able to give back what Coach Barnaby gave me, as a person and player, I will seize the opportunity.”
Briggs left Harvard with a degree in Classics, then set off on a Homeric tour, playing squash on money he’d earned working summers. He won the National Singles and Doubles titles in 1976, and started a sports apparel company, Boast, with partners.
Then, Briggs became a trader and, fairly quickly, head of the mortgage desk at Kidder, Peabody & Co. He married, lived the good life for several years, then divorced amicably. He tried an even bigger job at Merrill, Lynch, but his heart was no longer in it. After ten years on Wall Street, he felt adrift. One day he just walked away from it all.
Looking back at the period, the U.S. Squash Hall of Famer and perhaps the best left-wall doubles player ever, says he felt a sense of failure perhaps for the first time in his life.
Briggs talked things over with his dad, whom he considered his best friend. Both of his parents were English, and James Briggs was in the Royal Navy in World War II, when his ship, H.M.S. Harvester was torpedoed. He survived hours in the cold Atlantic and knew something about adversity. He had long been a steadying influence on his son, and this time was no different.
Briggs took time to travel, continued playing squash, and reflected. In 1984, the opportunity that Briggs had wondered about years before presented itself. Cornell University had an opening for a head squash coach. Briggs seized it, and began his apprentice-ship as a teacher and coach.
At Cornell, fortune continued to smile, and he soon met his wife, Di. The couple now reside in Pound Ridge with their sons, Cooper and Petey, and daughter Wellyn. Briggs spent four years honing his skills at Cornell. By 1988, he and Di began to feel that there was a life beyond academia and he heard that Apawamis was looking for a new pro. The club, which in those days had two igloo-like hardball singles and one doubles court, wanted Briggs.
Today, the teacher and coach looks out from his glass-enclosed shop upon a squash realm that is known throughout the country for its superior brand of junior squash. There are now six international singles courts and two doubles courts, and Apawamis remains a favorite tournament venue for top pros and the best area amateur players, many of whom starred for their college teams.
“I’m in the business of building self-esteem,” Briggs says. “I’m a teacher, who uses squash (or tennis) as a vehicle to give back what I was given.” Part of that giving back extends to his commitment to City Squash and other developmental programs.
What’s the biggest challenge? He’s diplomatic about a problem poking its head up in a hyper-competitive environment for young players, in which squash has become an admission ticket to the best schools, and a possible leg up in the quest for business success. There’s a lot of pressure on kids, who can sometimes forget they’re playing a game and it should be fun.
To anchor players of all ages, the Briggs Rules are posted courtside, one of which states in part, “Long after the silver trophy tarnishes, your reputation is all that is left.
Asked why he has stayed at Apawamis despite other opportunities, Briggs doesn’t hesitate, “It’s the people. The club members have treated me with respect and I respect them.”
Briggs’ cup shows no tarnish.
THE FIVE GOLDEN RULES OF COMPETITIVE SQUASH
Respect your opponent and give them the honor of trying as hard as you can every point.
Never take a point that your opponent doesn’t feel you deserve.
Always conduct yourself with your opponent as if you were having an interview for a job after the match.
Look the part and dress and have the body language of a champion.
Remember you are playing for your school first and then yourself. Long after the silver trophy tarnishes, your reputation is all that is left!