On a recent weekday in downtown Philadelphia, women’s world No. 3 squash player Amanda Sobhy paid a visit to her new home away from home, the pristine Arlen Specter US Squash Center on Drexel University’s main campus.
Sobhy, a recent transplant to the city by way of Boston and Long Island, gushed about her new address — “I love Philly!” she said — while she relaxed in one of the cafeteria booths in one corner of the sprawling squash facility. The 28-year-old Sobhy said she’s having her best season to date, despite the challenges presented by the pandemic in the last 18 months, and having to uproot her life in Boston to move more than 300 miles south.
Her world ranking came as a result of her September tournament victory in San Francisco at the Oracle NetSuite Open, making her the highest-ranked American-born player ever.
“It’s all working out so far,” she said.
Sobhy might not yet be as familiar a name to Philly sports fans as the Sixers’ Joel Embiid or Phillies MVP slugger Bryce Harper, but her achievements could soon rival those of both. Sobhy, born and raised on Long Island, brings a decorated squash resume to Philadelphia, including her Harvard collegiate career when she compiled a staggering 62-0 record for the Crimson over four years.
Since turning professional in 2015, following graduation from the Ivy League school, Sobhy’s career arc has only continued to soar. She is currently the top-ranked female squash player in the country, and her role as one of the sport’s ambassadors will take on a much greater significance now that she lives in the same city where the national team has its headquarters. With the Specter Center now open for business, Sobhy will be a marquee name among the scores of elite international players who will come to Philadelphia to compete.
“Amanda has far eclipsed the performance of any other American (squash) athlete,” said Ned Edwards, the executive director of the Specter Center and a Hall of Fame player himself. Edwards added that the new squash facility and Team USA have a “massive opportunity” in broadening the sport’s profile and the center’s brand through a player like Sobhy.
But Sobhy’s journey is even more remarkable given the circumstances under which she lived and competed for a decade. For all of the accolades and achievements recorded on the squash court, Sobhy had a 10-year private battle with bulimia. Until Nov. 3, Sobhy had not gone public with her ordeal. Even the small circle of people she did confide in did not include her parents or her two siblings.
“It’s an emotionally overwhelming day, but in a very good way. It was slightly terrifying leading up to it,” Sobhy said after she posted a video that day chronicling her 10-year struggle with an eating disorder. “Honestly, I couldn’t have asked for today to have gone any better. The response has been amazing. I feel so loved.”
For her 17th birthday in 2010, Sobhy gave herself what she calls “an amazing present,” winning the squash world junior title, the first American to achieve such an honor in squash.
“It solidified my place, and made me think, ‘I want to go pro for a living,’ ” said Sobhy, who grew up in the town of Sea Cliff. “At the time, I was a senior in (North Shore) high school, and people were saying, ‘Don’t go to college, your squash will get ruined,’ while my parents were saying, ‘Education comes first.’ My stubborn nature, I wanted to prove you can do both, go to college and play professionally.”
Sobhy said Harvard recruited her, and playing for the Crimson squash team was when Sobhy’s career blossomed. While she racked up those 62 victories against zero losses in her four years at Harvard, she only dropped two games during that stretch. True to her ambitions, Sobhy turned professional upon graduation and remained in Boston as her pro career got underway.
But throughout that period — from her late teens and into her mid-20s — and while Sobhy started to travel the country and the world to compete in tournaments, she carried a heavy burden. One that she kept secret.
For every victory Sobhy secured, for each squash accolade that was bestowed upon her and each new ranking she achieved, her eating disorder began to consume her life, both on and off the court. It didn’t matter where she was — at home in Boston, visiting Sea Cliff or in a hotel room halfway around the world — month after month, year after year, Sobhy was overwhelmed with anxiety and insecurity, but too scared to seek help.
“There were times when I was absolutely miserable,” said Sobhy. “After tournaments, I usually would go binge and purge. That was my post-tournament ritual and the tour life when I first started. It affected my mental health a ton, to the point where I was like, ‘Am I happy doing this?’ ”
Sobhy became interested in squash at an early age, after her Egyptian-born father, Khaled, steered her toward the sport. Sobhy said squash then, in the late ‘90s and 2000s, was still considered a “country club, upper-echelon” sport, certainly not a popular option among girls and boys in her public school circles. Soccer, football or lacrosse were the more sought-after sports.
Khaled Sobhy, who played professionally in Egypt and the U.S., was a squash pro at a private club when Amanda and her brother and sister were children. That connection allowed the three Sobhy children access to courts.
“He was taking us every weekend to junior tournaments. I was missing a ton of school,” said Amanda. “Thankfully, it was something I loved. I wanted to do it for myself. My parents pushed me, too, and my dad was my coach growing up.”
Despite the close-knit bond she shared with her parents, her older brother, Omar, and younger sister, Sabrina, however, Amanda Sobhy says she couldn’t confide in any of them about her struggle with bulimia. While she continued to reach great heights in her sport, at Harvard and then on the pro tour, her personal battle worsened.
Sobhy said in particular, she was afraid of being judged by her parents if she divulged her eating disorder. Her father, she said, comes from a culture where “mental health, in general, is not talked about at all.”
“There’s a massive disconnect,” said Amanda. “When I was starting off and growing up, especially with my dad as my coach, a lot of his affection was very results-oriented. That was tough. And my mom (Jodie Larson), I didn’t think she’d understand. She’s very slim. My parents, as much as I love them, they definitely have their own perceptions around food, which I didn’t think they would understand.”
On tour, she said her struggle was equally challenging. Sobhy said she felt “very much alone” in the early stages of her pro career, due in part because there weren’t many other U.S. players to interact with, much less share such personal details. As her ranking and profile increased, so too did the expectations of her squash play. She said she remembers many times sitting alone, going over in her mind her self-worth by comparing her match results or where she stood in the latest standings.
The pressure to be an elite player only got more intense, and so did the personal stress from having to balance her public life with her private anguish.
“I also was in a bit of denial,” she said. “For the longest time, I couldn’t say the word, ‘bulimia.’ I still looked healthy. I looked fit and I was performing well. I didn’t have a problem in my mind, even though it was affecting me a ton. I never knew how to deal with pressure in a healthier way, so I would cope a lot of times with food.”
Sobhy began to open up to a small group of her most-trusted peers — a high school friend, her nutritionist, her mental health coach — about her personal turmoil. When the coronavirus pandemic forced a shutdown of business, sports and life around the globe last year, Sobhy found she had a lot of time to think. She decided she wanted to finally go public with her story. In early November, a year into her recovery, Sobhy posted the 16-minute, 46-second video that revealed her painful past.
She was finally able to start the process of healing. Sobhy said she hopes her testimonial can be a starting point for many others who may be suffering through similar circumstances or battling an eating disorder.
“I don’t want to share my story and then nothing happens. I want something to be done where we can have a platform to normalize these conversations,” said Sobhy. “This is by far my proudest achievement as a professional squash player. Bigger than any tournament win, any ranking, any result. Sharing my story, making this big of an impact, it’s completely worth sharing my vulnerabilities if I can help people.”
In early 2017, while she was still living in Boston, Sobhy suffered a career-threatening injury when she ruptured her left Achilles. During her comeback and rehabilitation, Sobhy coached for the MIT men’s squash team to stay active mentally and physically, but it was also during that period that she worked with sports nutritionist Nyree Dardarian, an assistant clinical professor at Drexel University, and with mental coach Amy Gross, a former Yale squash player.
Sobhy said Dardarian “helped me build a better relationship with food,” and that both Dardarian and Gross helped start Sobhy on a path toward leading a healthier life — mentally and physically.
“[Dardarian] helped me view food in a whole different way,” said Sobhy. “She was like, ‘Stop trying to diet all the time, and live in moderation.’ ”
Sobhy said that Gross helped her address “so many issues off the court that were affecting my on-court performance,” most serious, the eating disorder.
Dardarian applauds Sobhy for going public with her story, and said the message will resonate with athletes and others “who might be struggling in silence.”
“This came from Amanda’s heart and from her soul,” said Dardarian. “The relationship between her and I is what built that level of trust for her to be able to talk a little more about [her condition]. Everybody should be normalizing these types of [interactions] so there isn’t a stigma attached to athletes and teams working with mental health professionals or sports nutritionists.”
Amy Gross, Sobhy’s former mental coach, agreed that a stigma about mental health in sports still exists. Gross said when an athlete shows any vulnerability or limitations, it’s often perceived as a weakness.
“For Amanda, I think she’s extremely authentic, and her video shows the power of her vulnerability as well as bringing to light a lot of the struggle and issues every athlete faces to some extent or another,” said Gross. “Amanda speaking powerfully and as raw as she did, that, I think, normalizes a lot of the mental health issues.”
There are 18 singles courts, two doubles courts and every amenity possible to Sobhy and the other Team USA players at the Specter Center. Sobhy said one of the main reasons she relocated from Boston was the desire to simplify her life, and be able to train and play in one location.
“I don’t want to share my story and then nothing happens. I want something to be done where we can have a platform to normalize these conversations.”
“I wanted a facility that had everything under one roof,” said Sobhy, who maintains dual citizenship here and in Egypt, where her father now lives permanently. “When this idea [for the US Squash Center] came up, I was like, ‘I would love to have this in my professional career.’ The timing was perfect, because I was feeling stale in Boston, like I had maxed-out everything. A little voice in me said, ‘I think it’s time to move to Philly.’ ”
The sport has deep roots in the Philadelphia and suburban Main Line region, and the late senator Arlen Specter’s squash-playing appetite was legendary. But like soccer, the broader appeal of squash across the country has been slow to materialize. Sobhy, however, thinks that perception will change with a facility like the Specter Center now available to host major events and draw elite players to the city.
“From the time I first started playing versus now, there’s been a huge increase in exposure,” said Sobhy. “The accessibility, people wanting to get into the sport, players getting recruited, and women like myself who can inspire the next generation of juniors.”
The squash center, which is housed in the old Armory building, is the brainchild of Drexel president John Fry and earlier this fall, the facility had its grand opening when it hosted the U.S. Squash Open. It wasn’t Sobhy’s best performance — she was knocked out in the Round of 16 by Olivia Fiechter, the No. 3 player in the country, and Sobhy was coming off a rigorous five-month stretch when she played in three tournaments around the globe. Still, Sobhy said she is thrilled by all the attention the Open and its host site generated.
“Now the national team players have a facility where, we’re all down here in Philadelphia, we train with each other all the time,” said Sobhy, whose younger sister Sabrina is the No. 4 women’s player on the national team. “The younger female players, they are nipping at the heels, but it gives you the drive to keep going.”
“We already have 10 public school teams playing here at the center,” added Ned Edwards. “If community kids see the U.S. Team here, as well as world-class players coming through, they’ll aspire to want to be like them.”
While Sobhy said she is eager to see female youth athletes take to the sport as she did when she started out on her squash journey, she’s equally driven to keep pushing herself to loftier goals. Now it’s just a lot less complicated than an earlier part of Sobhy’s life, when she was full of emotional highs and lows. There’s no longer dread or angst tangling her life.
“As  unfolded, I got to a place of living authentically, and being my truest self,” said Sobhy. “I started thinking, ‘I don’t want someone to go through the same experience I did, and struggle in private for so long.’ The more I told people, the easier it got and the less power [the eating disorder] had. I’ve never been happier, never felt healthier, never felt more free. I enjoy life and my squash. The most important thing, I’m reflective of everything.”
Originally Published on: Inquirer.com