HIGH ACHIEVERS: Stay-Safe Edition
Keeping Local Sport Spirit High During the Pandemic
By Martin Cleary
Iman Shaheen is always reaching ahead. That strategy has worked well for her over the past several years as a squash player.
The rising Ottawa athlete could play in her own age group, but she prefers the challenge of testing herself against older players in tournaments to develop her skills and push her limits.
At only 16 years old, she regularly competes in provincial and national U19 tournaments and welcomes the opportunity to trade shots with the best women in Canada and on the Professional Squash Association tour.
Shaheen’s next bold step in her drive to become a notable Canadian squash player starts Thursday at the inaugural Junior (U23) Pan American Games in Cali, Colombia. The 11-day Games will end Dec. 5.
The Canadian Olympic Committee is sending a team of 31 “next generation” athletes, who will experience the opening ceremony Thursday. The Games are expected to attract about 3,500 athletes in 27 sports from 41 countries in the Americas. Canada’s delegation of athletes, ranging in age from 15 to 22, will compete in only 10 sports.
Artistic gymnast Aurelie Tran of Repentigny, Que., and badminton player Brian Yang of Richmond Hill, ON., will serve as Canada’s opening ceremony flag bearers.
Karate’s Megan Rochette is the only other Ottawa and area athlete on Team Canada. She will compete in the women’s -55-kilogram class for kumite and kata.
The left-handed Shaheen, a Grade 11 student at John McCrae Secondary School, is filled with determination and passion for her sport, a fitting fuel for her impressive skills.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, she trained on court by herself or with coach Heather Wallace when health and safety protocols allowed and was highly motivated to work out at home otherwise. She also worked on her fitness with Sarah Zahab, a kinesiologist and clinical exercise physiologist.
“I’m very happy for her at 16 to be selected to this U23 competition,” Wallace said Wednesday in a phone interview. “It’s great for her. She has played up in age groups before. She’s pretty determined and wants to be a top player.”
This fall, Shaheen simultaneously played in the Canadian junior and women’s open squash championships in Toronto. She reached the junior girls’ U19 final and won one of two matches in the women’s open draw, losing to the top seed in the second round.
At the Nash Cup, which is a PSA event in London, ON., Shaheen defeated American Arisha Khan 11-5, 7-11, 11-1, 11-3 in the first round, but lost 11-3, 11-4, 11-4 to sixth-seeded Marina Stefanoni in the second round. Stefanoni is ranked No. 66 in the world, while Shaheen is No. 283. At the Squash Ontario junior gold No. 1 tournament, she won all three of her junior girls’ U19 round-robin matches without losing a game.
By getting back into the rhythm of playing tournament squash, which she missed during most of the pandemic, Wallace feels Shaheen is prepared to enter an international U23 competition.
“She has experience at the women’s level,” Wallace added. “She’s got the heart of a lion and focus. She’s a good actor on court and doesn’t show her nerves.”
Shaheen, who departed for Cali with the rest of the Canadian team on Tuesday, will be busy during the Junior Pan Ams, playing in the team event, doubles and singles.
Her athletic resume includes many other significant results: 2019 Canadian junior open U15 champion, 2019 Ontario junior closed U19 champion; 2018 Ontario junior open U15 champion, 2017 Ontario junior closed U13 champion; and 2017 U.S. Open junior U13 bronze medallist.
Likewise, Megan Rochette has made a name for herself in karate. She started the martial art when she was five years old as her parents wanted to help bring her out of her shyness. Not only is she an outgoing and upbeat young woman with aspirations to be a sports journalist, but also she is successful in her sport.
A highly organized person, Rochette won a women’s junior 53-kilogram gold medal at the 2019 Pan American championships in Ecuador. At the 2018 Pan Am competition in Brazil, she was a double bronze medallist in the cadet class in kumite and team kata for Quebec.
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 49 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.
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