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Penn men's squash senior Andrew Douglas has been pushing himself in the midst of COVID-19 without squash to expand more in his studies and civic engagement.

Credit: Pauline Colas

The conclusion to the historic tale of Team USA's squash run in the 2019 Pan American Games came down to the last man on the team — twice. It was Andrew Douglas of Penn men’s squash, the only college player on the roster, who would step up to the semifinal round and face Alfredo Avila — former No. 35 in the world, hailing from the first-seeded favorites of Mexico. 

With much to prove for his spot on the team and a first-ever finals appearance at stake for Team USA, Douglas delivered the most dramatic upset of the competition in Lima, Peru. He bounced back from being down 2-1, and successfully secured Team USA’s appearance at the finals.

Douglas and Team USA prevailed again in the finals against Colombia. Douglas reached the decisive 11 points in three of four matches against Andrés Felipe Herrera to finally secure the historic top spot on the podium.

“That was the craziest high I’ve ever felt in my life. Just coming off that court, I felt like there was just nothing that could possibly bring me down,” Douglas said.

Despite sharing the roster with top players Chris Hanson and Todd Harrity, who have been passing the U.S. title back-and-forth between themselves since 2015, Douglas was not out of place. His composure was uncharacteristic of a 20-year-old, and his confidence on the court translated into electric rallies. But these attributes were already quite familiar to supporters of Penn men’s squash who had witnessed Douglas' collegiate career. His gold medal performance in Lima was just the peak of it all so far.

Douglas has been playing for the No. 1 spot on the team since his freshman season. In his first deciding match at Penn, Douglas' comeback against Rochester rivaled his rebound at the Pan American Games two years later. After trailing 2-1, he returned to win 3-2, which secured his undefeated streak that stretched well into the new year. 

“That was definitely one of the more outrageous squash matches that I've played in,” Douglas said. “Just looking back, I have no idea how I possibly won that match.”

Following his decisive role in Penn’s victory against Rochester, Douglas would finish his first season at Penn with a 14-4 record, earning both first-team All-American and first-team All-Ivy nods, and catapulting the team to a No. 7 spot in the national rankings. 

As a sophomore, Douglas was essential in achieving Penn’s first No. 1 ranking by College Squash Association and finished the season himself ranked No. 3 in the College Squash Association national rankings. In two seasons, Douglas proved momentous to Penn men’s squash’s trajectory in the national spotlight.

Douglas returned to Penn as a junior co-captain of the team after the Pan-Am Games, and made national squash headlines again when he knocked out Lucas Serme of France — ranked sixth in the world — in front of a home crowd at the U.S. Open in Philadelphia.   

But under the pressure of living up to his accomplished summer, Douglas soon faced injury problems, which were then compounded by the disheartening news of a canceled season. 

However, with the absence of competitive squash, Douglas chose to make the most of his time, especially by further exploring his passion for his studies.

Douglas has been pursuing a major in political science, which has blossomed from an interest into a passion over the past four years.

“My mom actually volunteered and worked for Hillary in her campaign finance departments, and we would house campaign staffers at our house in [the] 2016 campaign — which was also the first election that I could actually vote,” Douglas said.

Douglas had the unique opportunity to observe the workings of a political campaign from a close proximity. By meeting staffers and learning about the complex operations behind the scenes, the experience grew to influence his direction in college and for the future.

“And I think that always stuck with me — especially that being the most formative election of my life — it all felt meaningful, everything that I was learning and the things that were happening around me every day.”

In light of the 2020 election, he rendered the same competitive spirit he had always shown on the squash courts into his pursuit of greater civic engagement.

“The past year pushed me to get involved. I counted ballots at the Philadelphia convention center, and just being there when they announced that Biden had won Pennsylvania, and being with all these random people who were stuck in the basement of the convention center for eight hours a day, it gave me similar feelings to winning gold when I played,” Douglas said.

“I always did best in squash when I felt the results were meaningful and that they meant something, whether that be like for like [my] country or for my team. And I got a very similar feeling of purpose while getting involved in politics, especially the past year.”

In the past year alone, Douglas has expanded his ambitions beyond just being an excellent talent in squash. He started working for a New York state senator, was involved in a school board election campaign, and currently works for a political consulting firm in Philadelphia. 

“I've gotten involved in other things and that’s made me able to pivot from being someone who had one goal — to be the best at squash that I could be — to being someone who has many goals and many aspirations, ” Douglas said.

And with the return to training this semester, Douglas has made the welcome return to the Penn squash courts with new motivations and perspectives on his game.

“I’ve been enjoying my time on the court and not thinking about the long term that much. I’ve just been focusing on enjoying each swing and trying to make the most of it,” Douglas said.

Supporters of Penn squash will be glad to hear that this will not be their farewell to Douglas just yet. Within a week of the Ivy League’s decision to extend eligibility for another year to current seniors who would attend graduate school, Douglas applied to Penn’s Fels Institute of Government. In a matter of only a few weeks, Douglas was on track for another season with Penn men’s squash and an opportunity to further cultivate his passion for political science.

“I had in my head an idea of which school I wanted to apply to, and I knew that it would be Fels. But when the decision came out of the Ivy League, I just jumped to apply within the next week,” Douglas said. “So next year, I think, is going to be a really cool year for me. I'm excited to redefine who I am and shape what role I want squash to play in my life.”

The extra year of eligibility will be Douglas' opportunity to make up for a lost season, but also Penn men's squash's chance to resume their highly-aimed goals with Douglas on the team.

“I still have the highest standards of myself in squash, and I want to be the best squash player that I can be. But I think that part of what's actually made me better these past few months has been letting go of those really strict expectations for myself and just allowing myself to do what I want to do; basically giving myself acceptance and freedom to do what I feel in the moment. I'm someone who definitely puts a lot of pressure on myself, and so not having that pressure and having other aspects of my life that I really care about, that I get meaning and purpose from, that’s really liberated me, and made me, I think, a more complete person.”