By Chris McClintick
Photos by Paige Stewart
“In an indifferent Toronto, the Pan Am Games Land With a Thud,” read a headline in The New York Times one day before the quadrennial Games’ opening ceremony. Earlier that week, Toronto’s Mayor John Tory even voiced frustration with his city’s lacking reception of the games. “I think the only sport that we’re not playing in the Pan Am Games is sort of moaning and groaning,” Tory said. “And Toronto, on a regular basis, would be qualifying for a gold medal in that.”
Many media outlets—international, national, and local—would also find themselves with gold medals on the proverbial podium. Some reports exposed questionable finances amidst a CA$2.5 billion ($2 billion USD) overall price tag from taxpayer money, and CA$400,000 alone spent developing tournament mascot Pachi the Porcupine—whose forty-one multi-colored quills represented all participating nations. Warnings of heavy traffic and general congestion throughout the city were interpreted through an apocalyptic lens. Ticket sales, or lack thereof, were criticized amidst hundreds of thousands of unsold tickets after high sales expectations.
Those critics would be silent had they witnessed the scenes surrounding the ASB glass court and three traditional courts in the Direct Energy Center, which housed vocal, sell-out squash crowds from start to finish. For the thirteen squash nations participating in the games, the stage doesn’t get any bigger.
As the opening ceremony commenced in front of a sold-out crowd of 60,000 at the Rodgers Center, spectacular fireworks shooting from the top of the iconic CN Tower cleared the clouds of doubt surrounding the games. Unlike previous editions of the Pan Ams in which the parade of nations proceeded in Spanish alphabetical order, the 6,000-plus athletes walked out in French alphabetical order, among them, 621 athletes from the United States. Team USA’s contingent included 110 Olympians, thirty-seven Olympic medalists, and twenty Olympic champions. Brushing shoulders with them were the nine members of Team USA Squash: Chris Gordon, Chris Hanson, Todd Harrity, Olivia Blatchford, Natalie Grainger, Amanda Sobhy, Team Manager Rich Wade, Men’s Coach Gilly Lane, and Women’s Coach and Ganek Family US Squash Head National Coach Paul Assaiante. For Hanson, Harrity, Sobhy, and Lane, the opening ceremony marked their first exposure to the quadrennial Games, while the group of U.S. returning players had six previous Pan Am medals between them. For the first time since squash’s inclusion in the Pan American Games in 1995, two squash players carried the flags of their nations in the parade of nations: Colombia’s Miguel Angel Rodriguez and Peru’s Diego Elias—the eventual men’s individual gold and silver medalists respectively.
As the individual events commenced the squash portion of the games, one major highlight stole the hearts and mind of all of those involved with the sport—a visit from IOC President Thomas Bach—the man solely responsible for breathing new life in squash’s Olympic aspirations through his Olympic program reform. As the German witnessed a glass court setting surrounded by a packed home crowd supporting Canada’s own Samantha Cornett, the young Ottawa native approached Bach to thank him for visiting. For squash, outside of the six medal competitions, the single most important aspect of the games in Toronto was to make a good impression on the non-squash world with an eye towards the Tokyo 2020 additional events shortlist from which one or more new Olympic sports will be chosen next summer.
In the Team USA camp, squash enjoyed an increased profile amongst American athletes thanks to Team USA squash’s record-setting medal haul, which contributed to Team USA’s thirteenth consummate victory at the Pan American Games. Of the thirty-nine sports at the games, squash was one of fourteen sports in which Team USA earned at least six total medals—women’s individual, doubles and team gold, and men’s team and doubles bronze. Amanda Sobhy’s three gold medals—a tournament first for a woman since doubles was added to the program in 2011—and gold medal doubles partner, Natalie Grainger, joined just twenty other Team USA athletes to have won multiple gold medals. Emails were sent out instantly after Team USA earned a medal spreading awareness throughout the U.S. camp. When the U.S. women entered the U.S. dining hall with medals around their necks, their compatriots applauded their success at the highest level of their sport.
“It was really interesting to meet so many athletes from different sports—and so many different body types,” Sobhy said. “It was really nice to get know these players. One morning I had breakfast sitting next to the women’s heavyweight wrestling four-time world champion and she’s trying to qualify for the Olympics. Some swimmers sat down with us for dinner, one was a five-time gold medalist. It was just incredible meeting such humble, and accomplished athletes.
“A lot of them are actually surprised that squash isn’t in the Olympics,” Sobhy continued. “I was surprised by how many people knew what squash was so that was a bonus. So many of these athletes were trying to qualify for the Olympics, or halfway to the Olympics. And there we were, such a tough sport that fully deserves to be in the Olympics, but we’re not. It was tough sometimes to say that. Just the fact that the IOC came to watch our matches was huge for us. A lot of people are hopeful, and we heard a lot of positive feedback so it’s only a matter of time until we find out.”
Assaiante believes squash put forward its best case for Olympic inclusion in Toronto, pointing towards diversity on the medal podium and dramatic finals entertaining sold out crowds.
“Everybody in the U.S. camp wanted to know what the chances of us getting in the Olympics was. It was on the tip of everyone’s tongues, and everyone was hopeful,” Assaiante said. “What happened up there was really good for the game because, while we dominated, if you’re looking at our game from an Olympic perspective, there was incredible diversity throughout the medal honors. You have Colombia winning gold in men’s singles and doubles, Canada’s men winning a heroic final against Mexico to win gold in front of a home crowd, Colombia’s women’s team winning bronze, Argentina’s men’s team winning bronze. So although the U.S. finished on top of the standings, there were a lot other countries to be proud of. We came away much more visible outside the game to the importance and value of squash in an international competitive showcase.”
Despite the success of Pan Am squash on the largest stage in the western hemisphere, the squash contingent hopes for the opportunity to compete on the biggest sporting stage in the world—the Olympics.
“I would gladly trade all three gold Pan Am medals for a chance to be in the Olympics,” Sobhy said. “Even more so after being a part of the Pan Ams on such a large stage, with so many amazing athletes. I would love to be on the biggest stage—it would be a dream come true.”
“To be around other athletes in Olympic sports, and that level which comes from the highest level of focus and commitment—and national funding and support—was a very cool thing.” Assaiante said. “My hope is that in 2019, we go down and do even better in Lima, Peru. And then in 2020, we march with those athletes into the Olympics in Japan.”