After rallying a series of difficult shots kept close to the walls, Maria Toorpakai, formerly ranked the number one player in Pakistan, bounced a ball off three walls and into the corner, scoring a point for Toorpakai and allowing her to beat Andover Director of Squash and Head Boys Coach John Roberts 11-8 in the first game. Toorpakai went on to lose the best-of-three match 2-1.
Coach Roberts’ height posed a challenge to Toorpakai, as he was able to get to the ball more quickly than her, according to Toorpakai. To combat that advantage, Toorpakai focused on attacking the ball.
In an interview with The Phillipian after the match, Toorpakai said, “First of all, I like to be back on court and to try to play deep and to try to take the volley. I was also playing by attacking, which I like to do.”
Toorpakai’s playing style was surprising to Coach Roberts; her methods were successful and she proved to be a challenging opponent, according to Coach Roberts.
“She is a much more attacking player. Most players are pretty conventional, and they put their shots in the back of the court. She shoots or attacks at every opportunity. Being a tall guy that’s actually quite difficult for me to play against, so you do have to adapt your game a little bit to account for that,” said Coach Roberts.
He continued, “We really had a lot of fun playing. I don’t really get to play attacking players so much so it’s great to see such creativity and the attacking display of shots that she had, which is contrary to many of the players I play usually, so it was a pretty cool experience.”
At last Wednesday’s All-School Meeting (ASM,) Toorpakai described her life as a dedicated athlete when she went to the local athletics stadium and began weightlifting. After winning the junior weightlifting championships, she soon became bored with the sport, so she dragged her father to the stadium to watch squash. He bought her secondhand shoes and clothes, and she began to regularly beat and be verbally abused by her male opponents. Toorpakai then began to receive violent threats from the Taliban.
Much of this abuse was due to the fact that Toorpakai did not act the way that these men thought women should. When she was four, Toorpakai had decided that it was unfair that, due to their gender, her brothers got to play outside. She then burned her feminine clothes, cut her hair short and started dressing as boy, a habit that she had maintained until around age 16.
According to Toorpakai, the support of her parents during this time was meaningful for her, as she confronted the difficulties of wanting to be an independent and athletic woman in her hometown.
Toorpakai said, “My family encouraged me and praised me for what I was doing. I think that it is important for a kid to be encouraged, and I think that is the most important thing… I liked the idea that it didn’t matter whether I dressed like a boy or a girl — I’m still Maria, the same person.”
However, Toorpakai worried about her family’s safety, given the deadly threats from the Taliban, so she brought her practices to her bedroom wall. She became the best player in Pakistan and a globally top-ranked player. In an interview with The Phillipian, Toorpakai cited coming in third at the World Juniors as one of her most significant career accomplishments.
Toorpakai said, “I wasn’t expecting that [success in the championship] because I was training in my room against my bedroom wall, and I decided all of a sudden to go to the World Juniors, and then I won the first match, second, third, fourth, and I ended up in the semifinals, so it was amazing for me.”
Despite the extreme adversity that she faced, Toorpakai described how squash now has a calming effect on her life and how she sees great beauty in the sport.
Toorpakai said, “I am a very different person — and calm. I was very aggressive, and now I am very calm. Even if I get angry, I will just go on court and train and practice… I think it gives me peace, and it’s a quiet place for me, and I like the skills. Squash is such a beautiful sport, and I like the idea that it needs a lot of mental strength and physical strength. It’s a very dynamic sport. I was always around squash, so I got into it extremely. Every player is different, so I look at every other player, and everyone has different strategies. There’s not just one.”
The positive influence that squash, and sports in general, have had on her encourages her to fight for athletic and educational opportunities for all students, according to Toorpakai.
“I think we all have to understand ourselves; we have to understand our uniqueness; we all have to contribute to the world as a good human. Play sports because sports keep us calm and healthy, alongside studies like education because education is for the brain, and sports are for the body,” said Toorpakai.
According to Coach Roberts, Toorpakai’s experiences and the way she has combated the challenges in her life make her an incredible role model to all students, not only squash players.
“Off the court, I definitely think [Toorpakai’s visit] is such a valuable experience, and she is such a great person to learn from given her history, where she came from, and everything she has fought for off the courts with women’s rights and her sheer willingness to be on the pro-squash tour and leave her native Pakistan in order to compete,” said Coach Roberts.