Tuesday, March 31, 2015

California Dreaming

It’s 4:15am on a brisk San Francisco morning. I’m waiting for the Uber that will whisk me off to the airport and back to Boston. I still feel like any moment I’m going to wake up from this dream, to find I’ve over slept and that there’s no time for a shower. 19 days ago I began my journey in the world of professional squash with the NorCal Pro Series, a set of three tournaments hosted at three different clubs throughout Northern California, designed to help up and coming professionals gain tournament experience and get much needed points to improve their rankings. I’ve spent the last three weeks crashing with friends, training on the weekdays, and playing in tournaments on the weekends, well mostly losing in tournaments.

As I slide into the Uber, Leith introduces himself. After getting through the pleasantries of how his night has been and what sort of a start my morning is off to, our conversation finds its way to squash. I sheepishly explain that I had won my first professional match on Friday to reach the quarterfinals of the Sacramento Open, but that throughout my time in California losses have been far more prevalent.   He quickly congratulates me on the win, knowing that was the socially appropriate response and then pauses. After about 30 seconds he decides, whether I listen or not, it’s worth giving advice to this young stranger, and he offers me the following sentiment:
“I think the losses are the important part. I’ve always learned a lot more when things didn’t go right than when they did.” As I sit there in stunned silence, wondering how to respond to this sage wisdom of my Uber driver, he continues, “Losing in life is what gives me the motivation to work harder.”

Leith was born in Baghdad, Iraq. He is the oldest son in a family of nine children. In 1989 during the first Gulf Coast War his family was forced to flee Iraq into a refugee camp in Turkey. Sadly his father passed away along this arduous journey, so it fell to him to hold his family together and he proudly shared that after two years in Turkey, they were all granted asylum to resettle in Sydney, Australia. Eight years later with his family established in Australia, he would immigrate to the United States, with the hope of starting a family of his own and a new life.

Grateful for where he is today, Leith reflects on the losses he has endured along the way. He spoke of how sad he is to see what has become of his home country. But still, through it all, he radiates hope. He is stronger because of all that he has had to overcome.

I don’t kid myself into thinking that my journey is anything like his. My current adventure is one of privilege with very little cost to myself other than a willingness to be poor. To have the flexibility and security to drop everything and follow this dream, I’m well aware that I’m blessed. That doesn’t, however, mean his words don’t strike a cord with me. It’s true that my success will come down to my commitment to putting in the time on court, ghosting in the early mornings and drilling in the late afternoons. And knowing myself, I’m confident the motivation to do that will come from playing better players, losing and learning where I need to improve.

As I hop out of the car at 4:45am, reinvigorated from our conversation, temporarily forgetting my sleep deprivation, I thank him for the ride and advice that he so freely shared. Leith, in turn, wishes me luck on my journey to come, particularly in defeat. And then it’s over. We go our separate ways, almost certain never to meet again.

As I seek out my plane bound for Boston, what I’m calling the prelude to my professional squash career has come to a close. I’ve been exposed to the level of play out there and now it’s time to get to work.



Before my opening round match in the Sacramento Closed Satellite.




Taking advantage of the San Francisco hills for an off-court workout with a view of Alcatraz.


A view of the Golden Gate Bridge and Karl the Fog from above, courtesy of some smooth flying by Ian Linford and the expert iPhone skills of Jaslyn Law.


—Sam Gould