For Penn men’s squash captain Yash Bhargava, his first time on Penn’s campus was the day he moved in as a freshman.
The now-senior had never visited campus before committing to Penn. He was making the move halfway across the globe to his new home in Philadelphia for the next four years; a city completely unlike Delhi, where he graduated high school as one of the top junior squash players in the country.
But with the experience of traveling throughout India and internationally for competition, Bhargava adjusted to his new environment with the same hard work in sports and studies that had earned him an invite to Penn. And most notably, he worked to live up to his place on one of the most international rosters in Penn athletics, becoming one of the most successful players in Penn men's squash history.
Bhargava was a remarkable individual star in squash before Penn. Finishing as runner-up at the 2015 Indian Junior Open Squash Championship and winning a gold medal in an individual event at the National School Games were just a few of his accomplishments as a junior squash player.
But before committing to the racquet, Bhargava participated in a variety of sports from a young age. His father had played cricket at the national level and was the most significant influence on Bhargava’s beginnings in competitive athletics.
“I used to play tennis and do roller skating. And at the same time, my dad would play squash as a hobby,” Bhargava said. “So I would go in there and just mess around."
Bhargava ranked nationally in roller skating and also tried cricket like his father. But as he grew older, he faced the decision of committing to one sport.
"I had to choose between tennis and squash. I went with squash because it was more of a new sport and was definitely something interesting and different that I wanted to try," Bhargava said. "So I think after seven years of roller skating, tennis, Taekwondo — I stopped everything, and I started focusing on just squash.”
Bhargava’s talent developed as he committed more time to the sport, but became extremely pronounced once he reached high school.
His performances in matchups across India and in international competitions prompted the attention of collegiate scouts. Bhargava had several options for his future after high school, but Penn men's squash head coach Gilly Lane presented the most convincing bid in Bhargava’s ultimate decision.
“When I was getting recruited to Penn, I didn't know anyone on the squash team here,” Bhargava said. “And it was our squash coach Gilly who I was talking to during the whole process. He was one of the best college squash coaches that I've ever talked to and I think he was somewhat similar to my coach back home in India. Rather than being a coach, he was more of a friend and a mentor.”
Lane was named head coach of Penn men's squash in March of 2016, and Bhargava would arrive at Penn in the fall of the following year. Despite the challenges of being an international freshman on such a competitive roster, Lane was impressed by Bhargava’s influences on the team.
“I thought he was a quiet kid. And it turned out to be the opposite in which he came in and he just established this insanely hard work ethic,” Lane said. “That basically just contributed to our success right away; he led the team in wins as a freshman. The way in which he carried himself was the way in which we wanted our program to carry itself moving forward.”
Bhargava put up an 18-4 individual record in his freshman year, but he also gained an understanding of squash as a team sport. Competing as a team within the Ivy League was a departure from the individual competition Bhargava pursued in India, and this dynamic became yet another motivator for Bhargava to improve his game.
“Before Penn, I was basically practicing and training hard for myself, trying to get into the Indian team, trying to be in the top three or four of the country. It was all very self-motivated,” Bhargava said. “But coming to Penn; even though squash is an individual sport, here it's a team sport. It's an incredible feeling to play for your teammates and to win for them, and I think that definitely teaches you a lot of life skills that you don't learn in an individual sport.”
During his five years as head coach so far, Lane can recognize the results of Bhargava’s hard work both in the development of his game and his leadership on the team.
“When he started, he wanted to be more of a shot-maker and play the exciting rally. And now, as he's become more mature, and as he's developed his game, he's become a more well-rounded player,” Lane said. “He's stronger physically; he's stronger mentally, which kind of shows in his growth as a person. He's a true leader.”
Bhargava joined fellow senior Andrew Douglas as captains of Penn men’s squash for the 2020-2021 season. Since their freshmen year, the pair have been pivotal for the past few historic seasons of Penn squash. Both completed their debut season with remarkable stats that foreshadowed their impressive careers to come.
“The whole team would go to Greek Lady before home matches. And when Yash was a freshman, he'd get fries and chocolate chip pancakes for every match,” Douglas said, “And everybody would kind of tell him ‘You’ve got to eat better.’ But that whole year, I think he lost two matches, so no one could really say anything. He’d walk up to the match and win almost every single time.”
First as his teammate, then his close friend, housemate, and co-captain, Douglas has been one of the closest people to watch Bhargava develop his game and leadership skills.
“While maybe he has become more vocal over the years, which I think all of us have, I think that he's always had that compassion which didn't change when we became captains,” Douglas said. “Really doing things for the good of the team; bringing people together, whether that be for stuff off the court, or just events around practice; he’s always been pushing that stuff forward. And I've definitely stepped into line and followed his lead in that sense.”
Captaining the team in a highly unconventional season, Bhargava adapted his role over Zoom to lead fitness sessions online and welcome new freshmen recruits. In the past few months, with students back on campus, Bhargava has been busy fulfilling his duties as captain without the virtual barrier.
“Now that we are all on campus, it was much easier to get to know each other and just help them out in their classes; just be there for them,” Bhargava said. “We’ve been just reaching out to them, making sure that they're doing well in their classes, or if they need any resources, because being a senior, we can relate to them and we've gone through all that. But it's definitely much, much harder given everything's online.”
Off the squash court, Bhargava has continued to contribute to his sport and fellow student-athletes. He has been a member of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee since his sophomore year, and is currently serving as the president. In the past months, he played a significant role in the committee’s influence on the Ivy League's decision to offer another year of eligibility to graduate students. Bhargava is currently waiting on a decision into a masters program which would allow him to make up for his lost season with a fifth year of eligibility.
“He’s competitive. However, he's thoughtful. He thinks about others first," Lane said. "He has the total respect of his teammates, and he cares for each and every individual on his team, on and off the court. And he's just been an amazing person to be able to coach. I feel very lucky to be able to coach him, extremely lucky that he chose Penn, and we were able to bring him here. And he's had an unbelievable career so far.”