As a girl growing up in the lawless tribal region of northwestern Pakistan, it's a marvel Maria Toor Pakay was able to play squash, let alone become the country's top female player.
With glaring talent, the support of her "broad-minded" father, and despite regular death threats, the feisty Pashtun prodigy became a national champ just two years after picking up a racquet, and would become the first woman in Pakistan to break into the world top 100. (She was No. 134 in the April rankings from the Women's International Squash Players Association.)
But increasing violence and terrorism in her homeland have recently driven 20-year-old to Canada, where squash legend Jonathon Power has vowed to coach her until she becomes a world champion.
"Once I saw her play, I knew what she could become," said Power, who retired as world No. 1 in 2006. "And I know what it's like [in Pakistan]for girls, so it was amazing to me how she managed to get so good."
Pakay is from South Waziristan, a Taliban stronghold near the Afghanistan border, a place rife with suicide bombings, kidnappings and, lately, air strikes carried out by United States drones. Husky and fearless, Pakay was different even as a child. She cut her hair short and wore her brother's clothes. She was strong, hot-tempered and liked to brawl with the boys, who were oblivious to her true gender.
When she was 11, Pakay's father, a liberated college lecturer, moved the family to nearby Peshawar, a city with schools, sports complexes and more opportunities for his six kids. There, Pakay briefly took up weightlifting before discovering squash at 12. Her training was sporadic and limited; coaches were more interested in rearing men's champions like the country's beloved Jahangir Khan and Jansher Khan - squash legends who came out of Peshawar.
When she didn't have a coach, Pakay trained alone. In the early days, she would hit a ratty, taped-up ball for eight to 10 hours a day. She practised footwork while housecleaning. And when it was unsafe to venture outside, she would hit the ball against her bedroom wall.
As she started winning international tournaments and her profile widened, death threats against her family became more frequent.
"They told my father they would kill us," Pakay said. "Because as girls we bring dishonour to the family by going to school and playing sports."
(Her sister and mother are also educated.)
Meanwhile, Taliban terrorism and clashes with Pakistani forces in the region made life - and training - difficult.
"It was all around us - kidnappings, killings, suicide bombings," Pakay said. "Female doctors and teachers were being killed. So what was I to do? I could not train, I could not go to tournaments. I knew I had to leave."
Over several months, she wrote hundreds of e-mails - courteous and businesslike - to squash clubs across the U.S. offering her coaching services in exchange for the opportunity to train "with peace of mind."
"Nobody replied," she said. "I was so upset."
When she saw a posting last summer for a job at Power's new National Squash Academy in Toronto, she wrote an emotional plea.
Power and fellow squash coach Jamie Nicholls wrote back immediately and got to work trying to wrangle a visa. Power found her a rooming house and raised money for her first tournament.
In many ways, Power's academy is the perfect place for Pakay. Located in an old airplane hangar, it is urban and unstuffy and eschews the exclusive-club mentality that has characterized the sport since its beginnings. The academy's mandate is to cultivate players.
"Bringing Maria here fits with my mindset and my model," Power said. "I built this place to develop people and ideas."
For Power, there is also a familiar exhilaration that comes with reliving the rise to champion status, which he says is an imminent prospect for Pakay.
But still, winning tournaments and climbing world rankings present an uneasy scenario for Pakay. She worries more exposure about her successes could bring danger to her family back in Peshawar, but believes her achievements could open doors for girls in the region.
"Do they not think women want to play sports?" she said of religious militants. "Do they think we want to live inside four walls all our life?"
Special to The Globe and Mail
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