Friday, January 13, 2012


Jon Power has many titles. Included in his 36 career tournament wins are the World Open in 1998, the British Open in 1999, 3 times PSA Masters Champion, 4 times Tournament of Champions winner, and a gold medalist in the 2002 Commonwealth Games. He was ranked world number 1 when he retired from international squash in 2006 and is considered to be one of the all time great players. And here is another title I’m adding to his list: “Hero”.

Power now lives in Toronto and has opened his own Squash Academy. He trains and coaches players at the elite level. Players that are dedicated, talented, and want to be world champions. And he isn’t just focused on Canadian talent. Any nationality is welcome.

But this is really a story of a young Pakistani girl. A girl who fell in love with squash at a young age. A girl that discovered she had a talent for the game. A girl, who because of her location, had to take incredible steps to nurture that talent. Maria Toor Pakay was born in a Taliban-run zone called Waziristan. The Taliban do not take lightly to females getting educated, or playing sports, or pretty much anything. It is literally life-threatening. To avoid castigation from the Taliban, for the first 11 years of her squash career Maria pretended to be a boy. Her family took a great risk in helping her achieve this. They then moved to Peshawar in order for Maria to pursue her dream. Eventually, as a victim of her own success, hiding her gender became impossible. Within two years, she was Pakistan’s number 1 ranked female squash player.

Naturally, the Taliban did not pop open the champagne bottles and embrace her success with open arms. Maria’s family received threats. To continue to play squash, it became clear that she needed to ‘escape’ her home country if she were to shake off the shackles of Taliban oppression. So Maria started to send hundreds of letters to coaches and training centers all around the world for help. She was ignored for four years. Eventually, one person replied: Jon Power.

With Jon’s help, Maria left her homeland and family behind is now under his tutelage in Toronto at his Squash Academy with – according to Jon – the potential to be a world champion. (And who can argue with Jon on that matter?) Her family is still in constant danger from retribution from the Taliban and that has to weigh heavy on her mind as well. She does not know whether she will ever see them again.

Whether Maria turns into a world beater or not only time will tell. And best of luck to her and her family.  I cannot imagine the headlines in Pakistan if their next squash world champion is a female. On top of that, she would have been trained outside of the country. But just the fact that Maria now has the opportunity to chase her aspirations thanks to the one guy – her savior - that stepped up when no one else would is inspiration enough. I, for one, hope she gets there. It would be a fantastic ‘fight-against-the-odds’ story just made for the movies. You can see a television report about Maria’s emotional account by clicking (after the initial 30 second commercial…)

Jon Power was many things during his playing career: world champion, temperamental, entertainer, witty, a natural born squash player – the list goes on. He was a John McEnroe-like magnet at every tournament. He bought people to the stands, raised the profile of the sport in Canada and North America, motivated juniors to take up the game. But to me, what he is doing now after his career speaks more about his character than whenever he wielded a racquet in his magically gifted hands. Talk about giving back to the game.

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