By Martin Cleary
Medals and memories will be two of the most important measuring sticks for athletes at the Canada Winter Games, which start Saturday and run throughout Prince Edward Island until March 5.
Some athletes will be multi-medallists. All athletes will support and cheer their provincial teammates, while chasing the overall Games points’ flag. At the same time, they’re gathering multiple memories from a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
But if you’re Ottawa squash player Iman Shaheen, the Canada Winter Games will be a significant achievement in her life for a second time.
At the 2019 Games in Red Deer, AB., Shaheen flirted with medals as a 13-year-old left-handed player representing Quebec from the Sporthèque club in Gatineau. She also experienced memories that were happy, a little embarrassing and definitely sad.
For the 2023 Games in Canada’s smallest but most welcoming province, Shaheen, who turns 18 next month, will come away with more memories and potentially a medal or two, but this time wearing Ontario colours.
“I found my first Canada Winter Games really fun,” Shaheen said in a phone interview. “I remember orientation day. We were asked if anyone in the group didn’t understand French. I understand French, but I couldn’t speak it. I was the only one to raise my hand.
“It was funny. They had to translate it for me, the one person who couldn’t speak French. My teammates were so embarrassed.”
As she worked her way through her matches, finishing sixth in women’s singles and fourth in the team competition, she was hit with devastating news. She learned John Larabie, who was her first coach, passed away from lung cancer.
“It was in the back of my mind. I had known him since I was nine,” Shaheen recalled. “John was a grandfather figure to me. He treated me like a part of his family. When I first started, I enjoyed myself from the get-go. He made it something I wanted to do.
“When it happened, I was shocked and I reacted later. It was sad. But now, I think of the memories I have of him.”
Larabie was a long-time coach in the Nepean and Barrhaven squash communities and at Carleton University. In 2019, he received the Volunteer Commendation Award from the Ottawa District Squash Association for more than 25 years of coaching.
As for her return trip to the Canada Winter Games, Shaheen is holding back on any medal expectations.
“I’ve had a lot of trouble putting expectations on myself,” she said. “I will try to focus and ask ‘Did I play well?’”
The focus will be on the present and playing a solid match from start to finish.
The women’s singles draw will be played Sunday through Tuesday, but as the No. 2 seed, Shaheen will get a first-round bye. Her first match will be in the round of 16 on Monday. The medal matches are Tuesday. All games will be played on four new courts at the Eastlink Centre in Charlottetown.
Identical twins Ocean and Spring Ma of Richmond, B.C. are seeded first and third respectively. Shaheen has never played Ocean, but defeated Spring 11-2, 5-11, 11-9, 11-8 in December to win the women’s U19 title at the Canadian open junior squash championship.
“They are such strong players,” said Shaheen, who is one year older than the Ma sisters. “It’s insane how good they are. They are so focused. They’re powerhouses. I wouldn’t take a match against them lightly. I must be at the top of my game. It’s a shame they’re in B.C.”
Shaheen, who attended John McCrae Secondary School for Grade 9 but has spent the past three years earning her high school credits through e-learning courses, has been contacted by prominent universities in the United States and the United Kingdom. But she wants to take a gap year in 2023-24 to concentrate on pursuing her squash career.
Last September, she took a major step to develop her squash career by moving to Waterloo, ON., to train with Greystone Racquet Club performance coach Jamie Hickox, the 1986 Canadian men’s champion, a former No. 2 player in England and a past No. 15 world player.
“He’s a great coach and my results have shot up. I’m really happy,” said Shaheen, who trains three times a week with Hickox and also practises with his daughter Keira, who won the 2019 Canadian women’s B event championship at age 11.
“One of the biggest things he emphasizes is working long term on what you need to improve; that for me is pace of play. I need that to get to that level (of international play). He’s emphasizing strength and conditioning as I need to improve my fitness.”
Shaheen has learned to take weight training more seriously to develop her strength. She prefers to play in provincial boys’ competitions to experience the increase in the pace of play and the power game she doesn’t always see in her girls’ matches.
“One of the biggest things at the international level, especially for girls, is there is such a big difference in the pace of play. With boys, I’m playing at a higher level,” said Shaheen, who enjoys the gruelling rallies as it forces her to test her fitness and concentration on each shot.
When Shaheen participated in January at the British Junior U19 Open, she reached the second round, but noticed “such a big difference and how powerful everyone is.” Shaheen defeated Wai Leng Yeung of Macau 11-7, 11-4, 11-7 in the first round, but lost to 9/16-seed Hana Ismail of Egypt 11-4, 11-0, 11-7 in the second round.
“You can (see) the intensity. It’s a whole different level,” she added. “Everything you hit is at a high pace and someone hits it back at a high pace and you have to absorb that. And there’s the movement you need to keep up and have the fitness.”
The Canada Games individual squash competition runs from Feb. 19-21 and the team event from Feb. 22-25 at the Eastlink Centre in Charlottetown. Consult the full schedule here.
Visit our Ottawa at the Canada Winter Games central webpage for more coverage on our local athletes’ journeys to the PEI 2023 Games.
Ottawa at the Canada Winter Games Daily Newsletter
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