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The Magnificent Marwan: Marwan Tarek, Male Athlete of the Year

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Since joining the Harvard squash team in 2018, Marwan Tarek has drawn crowds and headlines alike. During a four-year tenure at Harvard, the senior has accumulated a collection of trophies and titles that could fill the case at the Murr Center on their own.

Now, after what has been an impressively dominant senior season for the Harvard squash program, Tarek has added another set of achievements to his resume — another Potter Cup, the prestigious Skillman Award, and, of course, The Harvard Crimson’s Male Athlete of the Year.

Harvard has had a great year packed with athletic successes across the sports spectrum. For the teams and individuals competing in the male division of their sports, there have been many notable season-long performances: ice hockey, basketball, and skiing, have all seen Crimson athletes excel at the highest level of competition. However, nobody stood out amongst teammates and competitors the same way that Marwan Tarek has excelled on the squash court.

Of course, like any accomplished athlete, Tarek’s dominance can be understood in the numbers even by the most casual observers. To start, 60 is the number of matches that he has played wearing the Crimson colors. A regular season has twelve matches in it, so for Tarek to have even played 60 over four years means he not only qualified for the post-season every year he has been at Harvard but also done well enough to play the maximum of three playoff games every year to reach this impressive total.

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Of these 60 matches, the now-seasoned veteran has managed to post an all-time record of 56-4. To put this in perspective, the legendary 1996 Chicago Bulls ended the season with a 72-10 record. If Tarek had his record extrapolated into a standard 82-game NBA season, he would clock an unfathomable 77-5 season, steamrolling the Jordan, Pippen, and Rodman power trio.

Yes, Tarek wins. Yes, Tarek makes the finals. But does he win in the finals? Yes. The Cairo, Egypt native has won four Potter Cups with the Crimson, and in finals play, Tarek has been a perfect 4-0 in his individual matches.

In Harvard’s biggest games this season — the Ivy League-clinching win over the University of Pennsylvania and the Potter Cup final against Trinity College — Harvard’s go-to-guy has delivered. In a regular season game outside of Ivy League competition, Tarek secured a win over Trinity College’s Mohammed Sharaf, three games to one. A month-and-a-half later, he then repeated this performance in an entirely different context to score an essential point that brought Harvard its fourth straight national squash title.

With a true championship mindset exemplified in his on-court grit and rigor, spectators watching Marwan Tarek compete are reminded that athletes do not ever play to lose. In both of the Trinity College matches this season, one with no stakes, the other with the highest stakes in college squash, Tarek maintained the same level of focus and precision to close out his opponent. In both instances, Tarek won the first game comfortably and then proceeded to drop the second. Whether winning or losing, Tarek is always focused, composed. His ability to come off a lost game and string together two straight victories against an opponent as undeniably skilled as Trinity’s Sharaf is a true testament to Tarek’s unique talent as an athlete.

It is not that he is ever visually bothered. It is the opposite actually: it is generally difficult to tell what exactly the Crimson’s No. 1 is thinking when he is locked into a match. This makes Tarek exceptionally dangerous to an opponent. Maybe he is fazed by making an error and losing a point? Maybe he is so confident in his skill that he never feels the pressure of a single point? Regardless, an opponent that conceals his emotions until the very end, when he is able to drop his racquet and cheer to his fans is a terrifying adversary, especially when composure is just an additive to an already bursting kit of squash IQ and skillful shots.

The on-court persona of a silent killer, however, immediately dissipates after the 23-year-old economics concentrator leaves the confines of the squash court. Once his match ends, Tarek will jump quickly out through the plexiglass door in search of one of his teammates playing, so that he can cheer them on loudly. Tarek certainly holds himself in a way that reflects expertise and experience, which could be easily interpreted as unapproachability. But Tarek could be seen all season fully engaged in his mentor role, shouting motivation and conversing one-on-one with teammates about specific points of a game or opponent tendencies.

“When you’re on the court alone, you’re not actually alone. You have your guys there supporting you,” teammate Tate Harms elaborates on the importance of getting energy and advice from the team. And this is the true sign of a gifted athlete: a generational talent on the court who also uses his abilities to elevate the play of his teammates. After all, college squash is a team sport, and Tarek has led Harvard to the most successful four years of competition it possibly could have had.

The most notable deviation from his reserved style requires a look back once again to Harvard’s final game of the season against the Trinity College Bantam in the finals of the CSA National Championships. Tarek had won games one and three, dropping the second game. The bigger picture is that while the Crimson’s best player is on the court, the overall score of the matchup is 4-3 in favor of Harvard.

The spectators and players alike begin to realize that Tarek could secure the fifth point for the Crimson and clinch the title with one more game victory over Sharaf. An already sizable crowd was locked in on the number-one ladder game; however, once the stakes were realized, every eye in the building fell onto the Egyptian national champion. Dancing around his opponent, Tarek, on surely tired legs, looks just as fresh as he did in the first game of the season. But now he wears the familiar look of a man hungry for another title.

Up two games to one, Tarek ran the score up rapidly on Sharaf, until match point, and champion point, were established. Tarek and Sharaf traded drives down the line on this crucial point, until Tarek switched the flow of the rally unexpectedly — slithering past Sharaf to deliver a high volley to the top of the wall. The high shot forced Sharaf to reach for a difficult spike shot that ultimately errored into the bottom runner.

With the bang of the ball on the metal, a collective breath slips from the mouths of the entire crowd. And then the Harvard team erupted into cheers. While his teammates celebrate outside of the court, jumping up and down and hugging. Marwan Tarek shakes his opponent’s hand and then lets emotion take over. His hands rise up and rest on his head as he realizes what he has just accomplished: a fourth title for him and for the Crimson. And right on cue, the team floods through the plexiglass door, swarming their hero — their champion — jumping onto him and collectively collapsing onto the floor as one big pile.

In recognition of his exceptional season and overall career, this Crimson ace was awarded the Skillman Award by the CSA — the highest honor in collegiate squash for an individual athlete. A coalition of coaches determines the recipient of this award annually, and it is always an athlete who embodies college squash skill and sportsmanship. Nominees are judged for the Skillman on criteria surrounding six areas: on-court poise and demeanor, skill level, and ability in squash, team play, contributions to college squash, leadership, and cooperation with players, coaches, and tournament officials. It is safe to say that Tarek excels in all fields. Tarek joins a very high company of Crimson Skillman Award winners, including last year's recipient, Victor Crouin ’22, and former Professional Squash Association World No. 1, Ali Farag ’14. Tarek, who boasts one of the most successful college squash careers ever, will go down in history as a Harvard squash legend, and one of the best to step on the college squash circuit.

Looking now to his future in squash, the 2023 graduate shows plenty of promise, already participating in PSA competitions alongside former Crimson stars Crouin and Farag, who are both active professional squash players, with the latter recently claiming another PSA world championship title this month. The Harvard squash program has been very successful at springboarding its athletes into successful professional squash careers. With talent and drive as special as his, Tarek will likely begin making noise professionally very soon. Until then, squash fans can reflect and revel in Marwan Tarek’s collegiate career and admire his fitting season finale that earns him the Male Athlete of the Year award for 2022-23.

— Staff writer Callum J. Diak can be reached at callum.diak@thecrimson.com.

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