Hall of Fame

Vanya Desai

Graduation Year


Induction Year


Hall of Fame

Harvard Athletic Achievements

There’s no doubt about it, Vanya Desai knows a thing or two about success. But it wasn’t always easy for Vanya as she began her college career with a serious illness which forced her to take medical leave during her freshman spring. Eventually working her way back from that illness over the next two years, she capped her collegiate career as the WISA Individual National Champion as a junior in 1993. Vanya helped anchor one of the most successful college squash teams in the nation during her tenure. That tournament, Vanya won all six of her matches en route to becoming the Harvard’s sixth female Individual National Champion in program history and the last All-American in “hardball” squash. Vanya received First Team All-America honors three times (1990-91, 1991-92, and 1992-93). Those three seasons, Vanya was named All-Ivy League, and she was named Ivy League Player of the Year in 1993. She was also selected to the Harvard University Women’s Silver Anniversary Team. Vanya helped lead her team to two Ivy League Championships and two WISA Team Championships in 1992 and 1993. Her team also claimed the Howe Cup Team Championship (National Championship) trophy in her final year. That year, of the 99 matches played by Crimson players, 96 turned out favorable for Harvard leading to yet another undefeated season. That year, Vanya did not surrender even one match, winning all of her games through the Individual Championships bracket as well.

Hall of Fame

Remembering Harvard Athletics

I would like to thank the Varsity Club and the selection committee for this honor of being inducted into the Harvard Varsity Club Hall of Fame. When I was four years old, I started playing tennis at The Heights Casino in Brooklyn, New York. I began playing squash there when I was seven and started competing nationally at age eight. I loved playing squash, and my squash companions were my closest friends. One of the things of which I’m most proud is that competing against each other on a regular basis did not prevent us from remaining great friends. This was possible especially because everyone played with integrity. Sometimes we had referees in tournament matches, but we often competed without them. I feel we were fortunate because we didn’t need the referees, not only amongst my Brooklyn friends, but also amongst practically all of the competitors in national tournaments, boarding school, and on the US Junior Team. This was the case even though, before we could compete against other boarding schools or national teams, we had to compete against each other for spots on the line-up within our teams. To this day, I cherish the values we shared on the court and am proud to have grown up playing squash in that environment.

I have always enjoyed simply hitting the squash ball – whether it’s a rail, a cross court, a drop shot, or a nick. Squash is a beautiful sport that involves agility, angles, strategy, speed, precision and endurance. Playing squash helped me to develop my ability to train hard physically and mentally as well as to persevere. Through playing, I also have been fortunate to have developed many close life-long friendships. I have particularly enjoyed giving back by teaching others this wonderful game, which in turn helped lead to my teaching secondary school during and after college and my overall passion for education and character development.

To me, one of the most important things about the game of squash is its capacity to teach young people sportsmanship—the values of honesty, humility, generosity, respect and grace in victory and defeat. If I were coaching a junior or collegiate squash player, I would tell her that sportsmanship, not winning, should be her number one priority; that she can compete with a goal to win, but never at the expense of sportsmanship. I would also tell her that the example of integrity she sets on and off the court is more important to her legacy than whether she wins a championship. Indeed, I believe good sportsmanship should be held up - by parents, coaches, players, and the wider athletic community - as a goal more valuable than any championship. I hope that my own membership in this distinguished Hall of Fame reflects my commitment to character and sportsmanship. It is truly an honor to be recognized along with those great Harvard athletes from all different sports who exemplify these values.

I personally have been blessed to share the game and my life with many wonderful people. Among them, I would particularly like to thank my friends who made playing the sport such a joy: Andy Clayton, Mimi Ells Addesa, Hope MacKay Crosier, Mary Belknap McKee, Berkeley Belknap Revenaugh, Jackie Moss, Lisa Tilney, Lisa Faber, Chuck Goodwin, John Musto, Mac Carbonell, Dan Watts, Jon Pratt, and John Palfrey. I would also like to thank my Harvard mentor and friend Kay Merseth, and Erika Elmuts, Mel Kaplan, Cindy Mercer, Ed Kirby, and Dr. David Shuch for being part of my life long team.

I would like to thank those coaches whose help I was fortunate to have had along the way, especially Peter Robson who introduced me tonight. Peter was always encouraging, enthusiastic, thoughtful, fun and a coach I admired. I also benefitted from the wise coaching of Gail Ramsay, Stuart LeGassick, Bill Ramsay, and Bob Callahan; coaching legends Fred and Carol Weymuller, who were at the Heights Casino in Brooklyn at the very beginning and set the standard for sportsmanship; Jack Barnaby, the Harvard legend, who was semi-retired at 82 years old when I was at Harvard, but he was still out there coaching in practice and during matches; and lastly Steve Ball, my coach at St. Paul’s who comforted me when I was 14 years old when my close squash friend died suddenly as a freshman in college. All of these coaches have coached for decades, most at the collegiate level. I very much admire their dedication to the game and the way it should be played.

I would like to thank my family. My brother Sunil, who played squash for the US Naval Acadamy, coached me, and my younger brother Ian rooted me on since he was old enough to clap his hands. Ian, though 11 years younger, is one of the best life coaches I have ever had. My father played tennis and squash with me when I was little. For 14 years, my parents drove to squash tournaments on cold winter weekends, often in snow storms. During my matches, my father would meet me between games with water. He would pat me on the back and simply say either: “keep it up” or “don’t give up.” He might have an idea or two about strategy, but he was really there for moral support, and it helped. My mother, who worked full time, would wake me up at 6am with a warm wet facecloth and toast before I went to morning squash practice. She watched my matches and gave me the moral and practical support to see me through very difficult illnesses and injuries. She has continued to be my life line, and for that I will be eternally grateful.

My parents were married 47 years ago this June, here at the Harvard Club of Boston. Their marriage has been the team role model of my life and they set their example in living their lives with integrity, hard work and dedication. I knew they believed in me, and their attitude enabled me to enjoy playing the game I love. I dedicate this honor to them.

I would also like to dedicate this honor to my late grandfather, Van Ness How Bates, after whom I’m named, who played football for Harvard in 1915 and 1916 before serving in World War I, and who died when I was very young, and also my grandmother, Louise Bates, who said with endearment that I looked like a gazelle on the squash court and told me Grandpa would be so proud to know that I went to his alma mater which he loved.

Lastly, I would like to congratulate my fellow inductees and their families and friends who have supported them during their athletic careers. I am honored to be here with you all tonight.