The statistics speak for themselves: 16 matches, 16 wins, one Women’s College Squash Association Individual Championship.
In freshman her freshman season, Harvard's Laura Gemmell took the squash world by storm. She won 14 of those 16 matches without dropping a game, which culminated with the Ivy League Rookie and Player of the Year awards. Her perfect record even garnered acknowledgment from Sports Illustrated.
Though a lengthy winning streak can become a burden, Gemmell, who will travel with Harvard to play the Quakers this weekend, was able to maintain a level head.
“I honestly didn’t think about it,” Gemmell said, “I go into every match wanting to play well every game.”
And by ignoring the pressure, Gemmell thrived.
“I feel like if I had thought about it, I probably would have played conservative and ended up losing more games,” Gemmell said.
Even going into her freshman campaign, Gemmell’s shoulders were heavy with expectations. Before she had ever played a collegiate game, Gemmell was ranked fourth in the country.
But she wasn’t always so immune to pressure.
“The summer before my freshman year, I competed at the World Junior Squash Championships in India and put an immense amount of pressure on myself to do well,” Gemmell said. “I ended up being way too nervous and I didn’t play well as a result.”
By the time that she arrived on Harvard’s campus, Gemmell had learned to cope.
“Coming into college, I tried not to put pressure on myself and just play good squash,” Gemmell said, “I knew if I didn’t get caught up with expectations, I would get good results.”
Clearly, Gemmell’s philosophy worked. Just months after winning the Individual Championship, she’s picked up right where she left off last year. She holds a 5-0 record, playing for a Harvard squad that has won 18 straight matches.
“Gemmell’s court coverage is really good,” Penn coach Jack Wyant said. “And her mind is strong.”
Despite her dominance, Gemmell is human. In July, former Penn star Kristen Lange defeated Gemmell at the World University Squash Championships, 3-1.
“My strategy was not to give her the center of the court,” Lange said. “If you let anything hang up in the middle of the court, she’ll go for a kill shot.”
Lange stressed the importance of ignoring Gemmell’s impressive record.
“Half the game is mental, especially against a player like her who for so long has been placed on a squash pedestal for being such a great player,” Lange said.
Opposing Gemmell this Saturday when the Quakers (6-2, 3-1 Ivy) take on Harvard (6-0, 3-0 Ivy) will be sophomore Nabilla Ariffin, who has found her stroke of late. Ariffin took down Princeton sophomore Julie Cerullo, whom she had failed to defeat in her previous two matches.
“What Nabilla needs to do on Saturday is play with reckless abandon,” Wyant said of his number-one player. “She just has to trust herself.”