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Rising Ottawa squash star continues ascension at world championships

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By Adamo Marinelli

Ottawa-born Iman Shaheen, the No. 1-ranked junior squash player in Canada, who is fresh off a second-place finish at junior nationals in May, is checking a career accomplishment off her list by representing Canada at the World Junior Squash Championships.

“Ever since I was really young, people kept saying, ‘If you want to take squash seriously, aim for the world championships. So I did,’” said Shaheen of the event that begun on Thursday in France.

Shaheen, 17, lost her tournament opener against China’s Miriam Min-Chen Cheng, taking her out of world title contention. She’ll now compete in the placement draw of the tournament, which will land her somewhere from 65th to 128th in the world among junior women’s squash players.

Shaheen entered the event trying to keep realistic expectations. “I probably won’t get to the semis or the finals of the worlds, because there are so many other talented players and I don’t have that type of exposure yet,” she told the Sports Pages in an interview.

“I’ve only been to a few tournaments outside Canada and those tournaments have a completely different environment than the world championships.”

She still viewed the event as a pivotal moment for her career, given the opportunity it provides to develop, mature, and finally get some of the exposure that she simply doesn’t come by in Canada.

Her recent second-place finish at junior nationals was something motivating her heading into the world championships.

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“I was pretty motivated to improve all the physical and technical aspects of my game, which I thought were detrimental to me in (the junior national championships’ finals),” she said, adding that she experienced a few ups and downs at the Canadian championships.

“I played some of my best and my worst squash simultaneously,” Shaheen said.

She swept her first three matches in three sets at junior nationals — including in the semifinals against an opponent who’s familiar to her. Then things didn’t go quite as planned in the finals.

“I played against a very talented Jenna Dweek and I didn’t play my best squash,” Shaheen said. “I was disappointed because I didn’t meet the standard I was hoping to achieve for the match.”

Bouncing back, Shaheen said she trained vigorously for the world championships; she was in the gym or on the court either training or scrimmaging six days a week, taking only Sundays off, and often having two or three training sessions each day.

She’s also been training with some of the country’s best. Canadian pros like Mike McHugh and Nikki Todd — once ranked third and second in Canada, respectively, at the peak of their careers — often join her sessions.

Read More: Squash’s Iman Shaheen, karate’s Megan Rochette representing Canada at Junior Pan American Games

Shaheen also wrapped up another European tournament just a few weeks before the world championships, where she played against some of Europe’s best juniors. She said that experienced gave her a huge confidence boost before heading to her highest-level competition to date.

Shaheen’s longer term journey to the world championships hasn’t been without its challenges. Even with her partial training exemption, COVID-19 lockdowns and travel restrictions repeatedly halted her training. Unlike some of her peers, she couldn’t afford the luxury of travelling to places like Pakistan, England and Egypt — countries that host exclusive tournaments where the best players in the world often flock to. A general lack of experience at international tournaments has impacted her, she said.

“I can’t afford to constantly travel out to the Pakistan Open (or) the London Open,” she said. “Staying within Canada is more affordable, but it’s not what I need. I need international exposure, which I’ve been getting a lot more of this year, which is extremely beneficial for my career.”

Another major contributor to Shaheen’s career prospects has been her coach, Heather Wallace — who ranked third overall in the world in 1984.

Sam Cornett showing off the four medals she won at the 2015 Pan Am Games. (Photo: Steve Kingsman/Ottawa Sports Pages)

“Heather changed my perspective of the game,” Shaheen said. “She helped me evolve my playstyle too. She sees the game so clearly, she’s able to see the patterns, make all the difficult shots with her elite power and accuracy and she’s so confident.”

Another is Sam Cornett. The former Ottawa-raised pro has been a mentor to Shaheen, and would offer to play her whenever the two were both in the nation’s capital — a privilege not lost on the younger of the two.

Cornett and Shaheen also recently squared off at the senior Canadian championships, with mentor besting mentee.

Read More: Past beats future as local squash stars collide at nationals
Read More: Sam Cornett retires from pro squash: ‘I want to be closer to home’
Read More: Squash star wants to set a new standard

Shaheen is about to enter Grade 12 at John McCrae Secondary School in Nepean.

She aspires to follow the pathway set by many of the ex-players who’ve supported her and also turn pro someday. That would likely require moving abroad to possibly one of the sport’s hotspots — countries such as the U.K. or Egypt. Those dreams could also be impacted by financial realities, she said.

Other future squash goals of hers include playing for Team Canada after she graduates from juniors, as well as competing at the Olympics — which first need to add squash to its list of sports.

For worlds, she said she just wanted to “feel my best after every game.”

“I don’t necessarily care about the results, but winning a few matches would be nice,” Shaheen said.

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