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Sophomore Yoshna Singh serves against Cornell's Ananya Dabke during her match on Feb. 6 at the Penn Squash Center.

Credit: William Bartoc

For sophomore Yoshna Singh of Penn women's squash, empty squash courts were the reason for her start in the sport.

“I started out with tennis, but there were so many kids on court that I barely got to hit the ball,” Singh said. “When I was twelve, my dad suggested I try squash because there were these courts in my apartment building that no one ever used, so I just started hitting with this coach. I played a tournament a week after starting and won the ‘Most Promising Player’ award, which excited me.”  

The deserted squash court in her apartment building served as an apt reflection of the squash community Singh grew up around. Being from Pune, smaller than the bustling Metropolitan cities in North India, resources to reach a high level in the game were scarce.  

“Pune barely has any squash infrastructure relative to larger cities like Mumbai and Delhi,” Singh said. “It’s improving now, but there were many periods of time when I didn’t even have a coach. I used to train with my brother, and he supported me a lot. I never had a coach of my own to help me 24/7.”

She was joined by family on the courts as well.

"My brother was my sparring partner," Singh said. "Everyday he would hit with me. Even during his midterm exams, he would help me train for upcoming tournaments and help me improve."

Her family was instrumental to her growth on and off the court, fulfilling multiple roles of her training requirements.

“My father basically became my coach, Singh said. “He never played squash, so he would watch a lot of squash skill videos, PSA SquashTV, and learned how to play the sport through that and was an incredible coach.”

When it came time to commit to Penn, her father's impact was not lost, as he was a guiding influence, careful to ensure she found a community wherever she chose to go.

“As I was getting to know her, I had a conversation with her father, and that was really helpful,” coach Jack Wyant said. “Parents always say that committing is their kid’s decision, but that’s not completely true. Parents are so involved with their kid’s welfare, and it’s definitely a team decision. He obviously would want what’s best for her.”

For Singh, coming to Penn was a leap of faith that spanned across the globe. Moving to a new country as a teenager for college is hard enough. Doing it as a student-athlete is another ballgame altogether, but Singh has been aided by the relationships she has built around her sport.

“She chose Penn blind. She had never been on campus," said Wyant. "Nothing makes me happier than the idea of her forming relationships here through squash."

Although his first impression of Singh was through seeing her results online, Wyant noted Singh for her victory at the world juniors over a more experienced player, who is now a senior at Princeton. In the process, Wyant saw the makings of a competitor who had skills that others struggled to attain.

“She has an amazing serve; the best in program history,” he said. “It really sets up the point beautifully for her.” 

Wyant became impressed by her attitude, especially as she played through a hamstring injury this past year. 

“Yoshna’s a fighter,” Wyant said. “In order to make the upcoming nationals, we had to win against Cornell last week, and she pulled through to get the win for us. When she’s in the zone, she has so much precision in her game, which makes up for the restricted mobility caused by injury. She doesn’t have to move around as much because she’s able to put the ball exactly where she wants it.”

Being a student-athlete involves sacrifices that begin at a young age, and, in order to achieve her goals, Singh had to give up a lot of the traditional social experience enjoyed by teenagers.

“Growing up, my social life was traveling to tournaments with friends who also competed,” Singh said. “Initially, my parents disciplined me so I would stay focused, but after a point, I myself didn’t want to go out for parties and would rather spend that time on court. Even when traveling, I used to carry my laptop with me and do as much homework as I could on the flight.”

As an international student, Singh has been adjusting to a brand new environment, a challenge that is both exciting yet daunting.

“One thing common to international students is missing home," Singh said. "I’m living in a completely different time zone right now. Even the weather here is different, and a lot of my American friends can go back over the weekends. I couldn’t go back home over winter break and may not even during summer.”

Even under the challenge, Singh strives to exceed the expectations of a student-athlete. Full days of classes, three-hour practice sessions, and the occasional Daily Pennsylvanian interview snatching up her 30 minutes of free time do not hinder her perseverance and commitment to the game, which is not lost on Wyant.

“She’s an incredibly hard worker,” Wyant said. “She probably does eight or nine sessions of squash a week. She volunteers to do two sessions a day all the time. One time, she was late and I teased her about it. She responded saying 'Coach, I’m never late,' and I said, 'Of course you’re never late, you live at the squash courts.'”

Having made the journey to Penn as an individual player, Singh appreciates the camaraderie that comes with playing on the team.  

“Everyone is just so interesting and unique,” Singh said. “A lot of social events I do with them. Since we also travel together, we’re forming that community.”

“Back home I played for myself. Here, I’m playing for my teammates and my school,” she said. “If I win, I add a point to the team’s score, and if I lose, I have a group of friends there to support me and help me improve. This is really special and I love the team aspect of the program.”

Being an international student as well as a student athlete can come with its drawbacks, but for Singh, it seems like she won't mind spending another two seasons donning the Red and Blue while being so far away from home.