I struggled so much I wanted to quit the sport, but it made me happy – Middle East Monitor
Twenty-five-year-old Nouran Gohar grew up living and breathing squash.
At age ten, she began taking part in winning national competitions after being introduced to the game famously dubbed “the world’s healthiest sport” just two years prior.
Breaking onto the international scene in her early teenage years, she received her first tour title at the Prague Open in December 2013 at just 15. By the age of 17, the Egyptian player beat her idol Nicol David, a Malaysian player who held the number one world ranking for a record 108 consecutive months.
At age 18, Nouran advanced in the squash world rankings as the World No. 2 champion until she reached a career-high ranking of World No. 1 for the first time at 22, winning the title as the world’s top female squash player.
“I cried,” Nouran recounts. “That was my instant reaction to being crowned World No. 1, and it was very emotional, particularly because my mind went straight to the poster that’s been hanging on my wall since I was nine years old when I started playing squash. On it was written: ‘One day I will become the world’s No. 1.’ The moment brought back all the mornings waking up to that determination and the flashbacks of all my struggle.”
To make her young career even more impressive, the world-leading athlete has successfully balanced playing professionally whilst also studying at an elite level at the American University in Cairo.
Despite the demanding sports responsibilities, including training, travelling and competing, she was determined to prove that success can be achieved both on and off the field of play, no matter how tough.
According to Nouran, there’s a misconstrued notion that pursuing academics hampers an athlete’s dedication towards sports. It is also felt that devoting too much time to academic studies results in sub-par performance and should be avoided.
According to Nouran: “At the time, my coach was very upset with me and said he wouldn’t train me anymore if I go into engineering. He thought I was throwing out everything and questioned my career plans because he was under the assumption that when you go into engineering, you just retire after that, and I told him that’s nonsense for me. I knew I could be a successful engineer and a successful squash player at the same time.”
“I hate the concept that if you’re into sports or an athlete, you can’t be good at your studies or anything else, which was something said to me repeatedly. But you don’t need to sacrifice one for the other.”
However, there were compromises.
Despite being offered numerous scholarships in the US from Ivy League schools, including Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania, alongside prestigious propositions from universities in France, Egypt remains the dominant force in world squash and, therefore, Nouran remained home, where she was the first recipient of the Wadi Degla Scholarship at the American University in Cairo.
An additional compromise was the degree she chose to ultimately study. Having originally wanted to major in architecture, Nouran acknowledged the time commitment the subject requires, which would have been difficult to manage around her squash training sessions.
Following a gap year during which she observed her own dramatic progress in squash, climbing the rankings from 19 to six in just three months after beating Nicol David, Nouran chose to study construction engineering.
“If I didn’t see the potential of me becoming the best in the sport, I wouldn’t have given up on the best schools in the world,” explained Nouran. “But being best in the sport isn’t something that happens often. Very few people in the world can say they are number one in a sport. It’s special, and I saw myself reaching there. But at the same time, I didn’t want to sacrifice university completely, so I had a plan B, which was construction engineering, the closest thing to architecture.”
The decision saw her graduating the same month she became World No. 1 Female Champion. Despite the rapid rise as a squash champion after being ranked second in the world, Nouran began fighting a mental battle that swallowed her whole following her sudden foot and back injuries in 2018, which shattered her confidence, just as fast as her rising success.
Injuries can often trigger athletes to suffer a dip in their mental well-being – a struggle Nouran is all too familiar with. Before her injury, failure or game loss was not an option.
“I had suffered from very bad injuries and faced a tough time in the 2018 Europe tournament. I seriously considered quitting the sport, so it was an emotional rollercoaster,” noted Nouran.
She shared that while athletes’ achievements and glorious exploits are chronicled in broadcasts worldwide, which may make it seem like they enjoy angst-free lives, that’s far from the case.
Due to the high standards she imposed on herself, the pressure to always win was starting to tear her apart. “I started to lose mentally first and then lost to opponents I never used to because of a loss of confidence. And confidence during sports is key,” shared Nouran.
“Without confidence, you start doubting all that you do and your techniques during games. I even began questioning and doubting my studies. I also dropped on the world ranking from No. 2 to No. 8, and then during the US Open, I felt like I started hating the actual sport because all I was doing was suffering.”
Explaining how her craft had simultaneously helped pull her back from the brink, Nouran continued that her match during the World Team Championships in China in September 2018, where she had won, re-sparked her motivation after accepting that mistakes are part of the process.
Reflecting on her healthy mindset shift, Nouran identified her experience in 2018 as a form of emotional burnout due to incredible levels of pressure created by an unattainable standard of perfection.
“I’ve been performing much better since embracing the chance of losing, but I’m still a bad loser. But my drive to win and perform my best with a much healthier attitude has helped me to reach World No. 1 while also appreciating every moment of the journey.”
Married to fencing champion Ziad El-Sissy, the couple is currently based in Connecticut, where Nouran’s daily, gruelling training schedule continues. Her main focus right now is to reign supreme in the squash world by remaining at the No. 1 spot and not allowing any of her rivals to take her place.
As a professional world champion, her schedule consists of 12-14 tournaments a year in countries all around the world, including China, France, the US and the UK, lasting ten days.
Such tournaments take up to 140 days, almost half the year, while the remaining half of the year requires the athlete to vigorously train in preparation for the games.
“There is time for a week-long break after a tournament, but it’s not really a break because the coach gives feedback on our weaknesses, which you have to work on as soon as you return home,” explained Nouran.
“It is exhausting, but the challenge is fun and motivating. I appreciate this sport and the lifestyle that comes with it.”
Nouran expressed a heartfelt appreciation for her parents, to whom she dedicates her place as World No. 1. “My parents are the real champions behind the scenes. They’re my biggest inspiration. What made me want to come back after my downfall and thoughts of quitting are the memories of how proud I made them every time I won or tried my best. It’s all in their eyes and unconditional love.”
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.