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The Power to change the game

Former world squash player, Jonathon Power teams up with Maria Toorpakai Wazir to empower girls around the world through sport.

During his teenage years, a Canadian army brat chose his calling: the game of squash. Years later, on the other side of the world, a Pakistani girl made the same choice.

Maria Toorpakai Wazir’s choice proved more difficult, since girls in her homeland of Waziristan, in northwest Pakistan on the border with Afghanistan, are not expected to venture outside the house. In her words, their destiny is to be confined to “four walls.”

Belief in equality for women is a radical thing in a place the Taliban call home. Being a realist as well as a radical, Toorpakai’s father told her that if she wanted to compete, she had to leave the country.

Several years later, Toorpakai had sent thousands of emails to squash clubs, universities, places where she could chase her dream. The one response she got was from Canadian squash legend Jonathon Power.

Power started playing the game in PEI and continued as the family moved to other bases before moving out of the house to train full-time. “By the time we lived in Toronto, I was already on tour. I was playing full-time when I was 16,” says the former world champion. “My mom was a schoolteacher, so that was a tough sell,” he grins.

Now retired, the 38-year-old Power runs the National Squash Academy. “This place is like a field of dreams,” Power says. “Come here with your goals and I’ll help you achieve them, whether it’s beating your buddy on a Thursday night or being world champion.”

Power is at home at the National Squash Academy (NSA), which was built on a former Canadian Forces base now known as Downsview Park. “It’s got a good energy about it,” Power muses.

Power’s father, a former military phys ed and recreation officer, would agree. Decades ago, he built three squash courts on this decommissioned base “just on the other side of the hill near the track,” Power gestures.

“I got an email one day after I opened the NSA,” Power recalls. Toorpakai wrote that she wanted to “become the best player in the world, but where she comes from, girls don’t have access to sports.”

“I reached out to her. It took three or four emails to convince her because she didn’t believe it was really me.” Eventually, 21-year-old Toorpakai landed in Toronto “with $200 and a one-way ticket on a promise from me.” Power sponsors and coaches Maria as she pursues her sporting and social change goals.

Having cracked the world top-50 ranking in women’s squash, she’s on her way to the world championship she covets. But she also has her mind set on another goal, to help girls in her home country, and places like it. Toorpakai and Power are collaborating on a new charitable foundation called Only One Girl.

“Only One Girl starts with a retreat for girls from around the world, and continues after the retreat using online learning tools,” Power explains.

The idea is to establish a retreat at the NSA featuring sports, health, finance, yoga, meditation, squash (of course) – what Power calls “a whole mind-body experience. It’s a year-long educational process. You learn how to create a social enterprise,” a sustainable initiative that includes support for girls in their home environments.

This isn’t Power’s first foray into social activism. While Waziristan is home to many persecuted youth, Toronto’s Jane-Finch corridor is home to many at-risk youths. The NSA, just down the road, helps many of the latter manage that risk through Power’s Urban Squash Toronto program.

Now in its second year, the program’s almost 50 kids get mentored from grade six throughout high school. Every day, hours of squash mix with hours of schoolwork and tutoring.

At full capacity, the program will host 175 kids. “It’s a large operation so we need to fundraise accordingly,” Power says.

“Maria’s probably the ultimate Urban Squasher, who’s come against all odds,” Power adds. “She’s a great example of what could happen.”

This article originally published in Canadian Fabric Magazine. To view the print version, click here.

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Author’s note: I’ve been playing squash for more than two decades. I’m a fan of the sport and I love to watch elite players compete. Towards the end of our interview for this article, Power asks me “Hey, did you bring your gear?” There we were, sitting in the National Squash Academy, and a former world number one asks me if I want to get on the court. It was all I could do to keep from lowering my head in my hands as I admitted that no, I did not have my gear. In case you’re wondering, I have no illusions. Power playing squash against me would look like a cat owner dangling yarn above his pet. Still, this interview will live in my memory as one of the great missed opportunities…

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