Stepping out of the marble-walled elevator into the lobby of the exclusive Toronto Athletic Club on the 36th floor of the TD Tower, Pakistani squash player Maria Toorpakai is still amazed at how her life has changed:
"I sometimes pinch myself," said Toorpakai, 25. "What am I doing among these people? Every time, thanking God!"
The subway, the highrise towers in Toronto's financial district, even "these Western people," said Toorpakai, still astonish her. She begins every day with prayer, part of her Muslim faith, but also borne out of her own conviction that competing at the highest level is also a spiritual path.
'You cannot be molded until you are first broken in pieces and melted ... That's how the universe works, I think.' Maria Toorpakai, Pakistani squash star
Toorpakai grew up in Pakistan's tribal region of Waziristan. Pakistan has produced many of the world's best squash players and today Toorpakai is ranked as the 56th best female player.
Warming up on court, she seems effortlessly precise but the real effort, she said, is the mental energy required during competition.
"It's a very strategic game," said Toorpakai, making decisions in microseconds, depending on where the opponent is and how to pace the ball. "There's a lot — that's why it's called physical chess."
But as a child growing up in Pakistan, Toorpakai's athleticism was fueled more by aggression than strategy. Even older boys knew better than to pick a fight with a girl who raged at the restrictions in her culture.
"I was very aggressive," said Toorpakai. "I was a fighter. I was always found in the middle of fights, bruised, bleeding. But that shaped my life. I grew up among men. You hardly even see girls outside, so I grew up among boys and I was one of them."
Toorpakai was only four when she took a stand against the constraints the culture imposed on girls. It was a day when both her parents were out of the house. She gathered up her beaded dresses, threw them in the fire pit where her mother baked the family's bread, doused the dresses with kerosene and threw in a match. Then she chopped her hair with her mother's sewing scissors.
'I used to chase any boy'
Her father was the first to find out. Toorpakai can still see him, studying her from the doorway:
"He was just looking there," Toorpakai recalled. "And he smiled. Instead of getting angry, he smiled."
She reminded him of his own sister, he told her. "Girls are not allowed to be themselves," said Toorpakai, "so she was very aggressive, very angry all the time. But also sincere and honest." Toorpakai's father told his daughter that her aunt's heart became enlarged because of the anger and pain she held back.
That day, he told Toorpakai, he would raise her as his son, and call her Genghis Khan. For years, Toorpakai dressed and lived like a boy — and fought like a boy.
"I used to chase any boy," said Toorpakai, laughing, "who had a reputation for being strong. I would go to his village, challenge him, wrestle him and come back."
At 12, Toorpakai discovered squash. But by 16, competing in the tournaments meant coming clean with the Pakistani squash academy about her real name and gender. She excelled as a female player.
But now she was also bullied and accosted — at tournaments, and in the streets and marketplace. Her family was part of the Waziristan tribe, which produces many Taliban militants. There was a lot of bombing in the area. She said the Taliban targeted her family with death threats. The emotional and physical strain took a toll.
Toorpakai recalls she trained so hard her muscles ached, and she would tie her mother's veil around her legs like a tourniquet to block the pain. It was too dangerous to leave the house so her bedroom walls became her squash court. As a teenager, the confinement was intolerable.
Toorpakai applied for a visa to train in the safety of neighbouring Malaysia, and emailed hundreds of squash clubs and pros around the world, begging for a chance to leave Pakistan and coach and train openly as a woman. It was in an internet cafe in Malaysia that she received the one and only response to her pleading emails — from Canadian Jonathon Power, then the world's top squash player.
"It was unbelievable," said Toorpakai. "I couldn't believe it's really him. For the first minute, my heart stopped."
The road to Canada would not be straightforward. Toorpakai got dengue fever, a leading cause of death in South Asia, sometimes called "break-bone fever" because of the shattering pain of inflamed joints. She was near death that week. So on March 22, 2011, when she arrived at Pearson International Airport where Power stood waving as she walked into the arrivals area, she could hardly believe her eyes.
"I cannot believe Jonathon himself came to pick me up," said Toorpakai. "He put my bag on his shoulder. I couldn't believe, this world champion, taking my bag."
But at the same time, she felt it was meant to be.
"As destiny," said Toorpakai. "My first squash racket was a Jonathon Power signature racket — my first squash racket that was gifted for me! It's unbelievable for me, all those things. I feel that God chose me to do certain things."
Recently, Toorpakai has been recovering from an injury to her foot — plantar fasciitis. Halting her training to heal sometimes felt like being confined again in her room in Pakistan — but now wrestling with homesickness and pain. But it was also necessary, she said, to step back from the sport that has dominated her life.
"You cannot be molded until you are first broken in pieces and melted," said Toorpakai. "You will be broken, torn in pieces, you know and then you will be reshaped. That's how the universe works, I think. We have to just wait and have good intentions for others. And be kind to ourselves."
This week, fit again, she said she's learned to play with less effort, "doing more with less". At the Nash Cup in London, Ontario, she'll represent Pakistan as she vies for $10,000 in prize money, defending not just her two-time championship at that tournament but also the freedom she hopes will someday be reality for other children in Pakistan:
"Boys should be educated to empower girls," said Toorpakai. "And sport is very important. It connects you to your spiritual side. It purifies you. It cleanses you. I was very negative — a very aggressive kid. I could be a terrorist if I wasn't a squash player. But here I go — I'm a warrior on court."