Wednesday, September 30, 2009

New Guy Rediscovers His Old Sport

Posted By on Wed, Sep 30, 2009 at 8:12 AM

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It's not easy being the new guy or the new girl in any sport, but even harder if you're from another culture.

The minute you step on the court, green, or field, the regulars start checking you out. Oversell your skills and you'll be found out sooner or later and probably demoted if not shunned. Undersell yourself and you won't get the competition and workout you deserve.

Meet Mohamed, a new guy who rediscovered fun in his old sport.

Mohamed Elmeliegy is from Cairo, Egypt and is working on a doctorate in pharmacy at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. His sport is squash. Eight years ago, when he was 19 years old, he had a national ranking in Egypt and played against two pros now ranked in the Top Three in the world, Karim Darwish and Amr Shabana.

I met Mohamed on the Internet when he put out an email call for squash players at Rhodes College. Squash players are a little snobbish, but not without reason. You can play golf, run, or do machines with someone at a different skill level and have a decent workout, but squash, like tennis and basketball, doesn't work that way. Even good players sometimes lose to better players without winning a point.

The regulars were intrigued but a little skeptical when we heard he had played at a high level in Egypt. Embellishing your resume isn't confined to coaches and college applicants, especially if you're afraid you won't get the time of day otherwise. But Mohamed was matter of fact about it, not bragging at all. For two years, he trained with an elite group of ten junior players at a squash academy in Cairo. They practiced three times a day, doing conditioning and running hills in the morning, drills on the court at noon, and match play in the evening.

Like Pakistan before it, Egypt is a hotbed of squash. Mohamed's grandfather played with the Egyptian president.

"Who was the president then?" I asked.

"The president now," he replied with a smile.

I felt like a contestant on Jeopardy. World leaders for $100. The guy after Anwar Sadat. Military man. War with Israel. I finally buzzed in with Hosi Mubarak. Correct.

Mohamed's father taught him how to play when he was eight years old. By the time he was 18, he had a junior ranking and had seen or played some of the world's best players. Everyone else in his family is a doctor. It was "weird" to face a choice between medicine and sports. He decided he had neither the world-class talent nor the interest to try to scratch out a living on the pro squash tour. When he was playing squash he was thinking about school. He quit cold to study pharmacy.

"I overtrained," he said. "When I thought of squash I associated it with the training. It was not fun."

Three weeks ago he decided to get back into the game. He came to the courts with a bum ankle, running shoes, a sweatshirt, no racquet, and a pair of regular prescription glasses that fogged up. He estimated that he was 25 pounds heavier than when he played regularly. The first day, he hit the ball hard and clean with classic strokes, but he didn't move or shoot particularly well. The second and third days he got a little better. On the fourth day, he had his own new racquet and shoes. And we realized one more thing. Mohamad is Muslim, and this was the day after Ramadan. He had been fasting from sunrise to sunset for 30 days. Not exactly a training regimen for a sport that can easily sweat a couple of pounds and 1000 calories off you in an hour or so.

He plays two or three days a week now, as part of the overeducated squash melting pot that includes Pakistani and American doctors and medical students, an Indian physicist, college professors, a former pro basketball player, and the rest of us out there chasing a little black ball and a higher level of mediocrity. He's the new guy, the friendly Egyptian we hope will make the rest of us better. He's enjoying the game again. It takes his mind off school.

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