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Freshman Raheem Salah was one of nine members of Penn women's squash to down her opponent on Friday as the Quakers swept Columbia, 9-0, in the Collegiate Squash Association national semifinals.

Credit: Ananya Chandra , Ananya Chandra

In most college sports, you see scores of amateurs competing to be a part of a select few good enough to compete professionally after graduation. In the world of college squash, however, the two worlds collide as amateurs could find themselves matched up with some of the best players in the world.

The schools who have found themselves at the top of the rankings year after year have capitalized on this unique setup to bring the best and brightest to their campus. Teams such as Harvard have recruited some of the best young squash players in the world that have excelled at both the college and professional level.

Former Harvard players such as Amanda Sobhy — who carried a top-20 world ranking throughout her college career — and Ali Farag racked up a plethora of victories for the Crimson throughout their careers while simultaneously heading off to compete in tournaments around the world.

Penn squash’s recent losses to Harvard in Cambridge highlighted the advantage that having players of an elite caliber provides. Current players such as freshman Sabrina Sobhy for the Crimson, currently ranked No. 63 in the world, were able to use their superior experience to pick up nearly automatic wins for their team.

These powerhouses in Harvard and Trinity have used this success to bring in the highest pedigree of players, but they are quick to point out that they don’t see themselves as professional factories like Ohio State and Alabama, which routinely crank out NFL-level talent.

“We never advertise ourselves as a place that will turn you into a pro,” Harvard assistant coach Luke Hammond said. “But we want players to feel like if that’s something they want to do, we will accommodate them in any way we can.”

These players rarely run into much trouble in their collegiate matches, but what keeps them from making the jump to a full-time professional are the economics surrounding the sport.

According to NCAA rules, players are allowed to play professionally concurrently with their college career as long as any winnings they earn are used to cover living expenses, training costs and/or food. In many cases, athletes that travel to various tournaments often come up just short of covering the costs they’ve incurred.

“The reality is more often than not you don’t make what you spend,” Wyant said. “Most squash players in the world, especially those who play in college, struggle to make money.”

High revenue sports such as baseball and basketball draw young talent away from college to pursue the sky-high salaries and lifestyles featured in the HBO series "Ballers." College dropouts on the professional squash circuit are a rarity as the meager purses at the many PSA tournaments around the globe barely cover expenses for participants.

In some extreme cases, athletes have had to resort to unorthodox methods to fund their endeavors. 2010 Asian Junior Championship gold medalist Ravi Dixit recently put his kidney up for sale online in order to fund his travel for tournaments the rest of the year.

Taking the plunge into a professional career looms as a daunting task to the young players in the game. The average salary for a professional comes to about $43,000, which forces players to take on public appearances, coach and participate in exhibition matches just to make ends meet.

“It’s basically only the top two really making a living off [squash],” said Mike Talbott, head coach at Stanford. “Not many people dropped out like I did back then.”

Talbott is one of few successful squash players that dropped out of college early to pursue a full-time squash career. After completing his first semester at Trinity, Talbott decided to drop out in order to fully commit himself to the game.

Money was hard to come by at first, forcing Talbott to take a job as a lifeguard at the Detroit Athletic Club, but within just three years Talbott became one of the top players in the professional circuit.

Even ascending to the apex of the sport doesn’t guarantee expensive sports cars and sprawling mansions. Former world No. 1 Nick Matthew only pulled in $110,000 in total earnings in 2011, less than 20 percent of the minimum salary for an NBA player.

Players from around the world have continued to flock to the states as the chance to earn a degree while pursuing their own professional aspirations has been enticing. The meager earning potential may keep players in school for their four year terms, but players have continued to take on the challenge of making a living from playing squash.

Wyant and associate head coach Gilly Lane both juggled the college and professional competitions during their time at Princeton and Penn respectively. While the squash lifestyle may not have been as glamorous as more popular sports, the two coaches still encourage their players to pursue the opportunity if they are willing.

“I’d be thrilled if we could bridge that gap in future years,” Wyant said. “We’re hopeful that more of those really talented athletes that want to play professionally come here.”

Some Quakers have garnered outside experience representing their national teams such as freshmen Reeham Salah and junior Anaka Alankamony. While the competition isn’t quite akin to the Professional Squash Association Tour, the experience brings a quasi-professional feel to the team.

“Our women’s team has it and the men are getting there,” Wyant added. “The standard is almost like a smaller tier professional tournament for our teams.”

Fluctuating between the top levels of squash becomes a challenge that burdens even the best players. Money and wins aside, the players fall back on their passion to power through the struggles.

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