Watching the Olympics, what you see is the glory: Athletes performing super-human feats, records being broken, medals being won.
What you don’t see is the path these athletes take to get there: the immense personal, trying professional, and grueling physical challenges they have to overcome in pursuit of representing their countries at the Games.
And that’s why, over the next several weeks, we’re giving you an inside look—a peek inside the life of women with Olympic aspirations. For anyone who’s dreamed of being an athlete (or just loves being a spectator!), it’s a series you can’t miss.
I first met Miranda on a trip to Paris. I was a summer student in Geneva at the time, and she was a cancer research intern in Brussels, Belgium. We drank wine and ate cheese on the Avenue des Champs-Elysees, watched the final stage of the Tour de France, and laughed a lot.
At the time, I had no idea she was an elite squash player at Yale and that, in just three years’ time, she would become a world class squash player, boasting achievements and titles like the 2008 NCAA Intercollegiate Champion, the 2010 Canadian National Champion, Canadian Athlete of the Year (2011), and gold and double bronze medalist at the 2011 Pan-Am Games in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Like many student-athletes, Miranda balanced her coursework at Yale University in Molecular Biology with a 2-3 hour training schedule, seven days a week, not including tournaments. While she brought numerous successes to Yale’s Division I Women’s Squash Team, the decision to play full-time wasn’t made until Miranda found herself with the option of either coaching squash or becoming a research assistant in New York City. “It was my last year at Yale, and I was applying for research jobs in New York, but then I also had the opportunity to play squash full-time,” she explains. “I wasn’t going to be funded the first year, so in order to play full-time, I had to work. I made the decision that I wasn’t ready to go into a full-time job, and I really loved the sport still. So I just said, ‘I really want to give this a go and do it for two years and then go back to school.’ Every year, something new has come up.”
These things that kept “coming up” included the 2009 Pan-Am Games later the following year, the 2010 Commonwealth games, and the 2010 World Championships. It seemed that each year, Miranda’s titles and opportunities expanded, and with that, she added on another year to her professional athletic career, pushing back her decision to go to graduate school.
Of course, Miranda has experienced the usual difficulties that many scholar-athletes face: the constant choice between pursuing her education and career beyond her sport and also taking the seemingly one-shot opportunity to travel and represent her country. The higher her desire to pursue a sustainable career as a doctor becomes, the higher the opportunity cost is for each year as a professional athlete—a career that can reward tremendously with a one-millisecond-move that wins a big game or, alternatively, can devastate with one pulled muscle or miscalled judgment.
But Miranda has taken everything with a smile. When I asked her what the worst moment in her athletic career has been, she paused and added with a laugh, “It’s funny, every time I lose, it’s a bad moment.” I joined her in the laughter, and after a few minutes, she added, “There are so many ups and downs in this sport. When you win, you’re on top of the world—everything you’ve done all makes sense. When you have bad losses, you second guess everything you’re doing. But the sport has just taught me that you have to get back out there and train harder. When I first graduated from Yale, I tried out for the World Team to compete in Malaysia, and I lost to both the players I needed to beat in these marathon-like, non-ending matches. I had just started playing professionally and was quite keen. In the end, I felt it was a match that I should have won. That’s always a heartbreaker.”
After four years as a successful professional athlete, though, Miranda is thinking of moving on. This upcoming fall, she will be moving back to Florida for optometry school at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale. I asked her about this decision and she replied, “Because squash is a small sport, and not in the Olympics, it’s tricky to play for a long time. It’s not really sustainable unless I wanted to coach. Originally, I wanted to do it for a few years and travel and meet people, and now that I’ve done it for four years, I’m ready to get going on my career.” But what about the Olympics? Miranda replied earnestly, “Every year it’s so close to becoming an Olympic sport, and we’re always one of the sports that they almost pick. We’ll probably get in for the 2020 games. It’s just not publicized. It’s not on TV, but even if it were, it’s just really tricky to televise, and people who don’t play it don’t recognize how it’s such a legitimate sport.”
Teasing Miranda, I asked her what would happen if squash were featured in the 2020 Games, given her history of extending her professional career. She laughed and then said matter-of-factly, “Pan Pan, I think I’ll be too old then. Well, unless I go as a coach or something.”
As our conversation moved away from squash, Miranda touched on something that once again left me with a smile. We had spent some time discussing the decision to study optometry and go back to school in the US, when I suddenly asked Miranda the difficult question of what athletes, pursuing an individual title in a game of physical elitism, actually contribute to society.
Her response was immediate, as if she had already anticipated my move and served it right back at me. “I’ve had a lot of conversation about this, and you know what? This is my answer: You’re perfecting a skill you can later pass on—just like perfecting a language. The ultimate goal is to become a really good role model to kids or adults, or anyone who is interested in having a healthy lifestyle. Being the best at your sport is really motivational to other people, and promoting a healthy lifestyle by being active is so important. On the other hand, that’s why I’m not going to play squash for years and years. I want to go to school later to make my contribution to society. I don’t necessarily want to coach, but I know a lot of people who are done with their own careers and will become world class coaches. They’ll use all this knowledge to help new athletes.”
Well, Miranda, here’s my reply: Optometry school is four years long, so maybe we’ll see you in 2020 (I hear Istanbul, Tokyo and Madrid are pretty exciting cities).