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A Sky of Stars: Penang Shines as a Sporting State

There’s her flair for the game, and then there are the endless hours of training, six days a week. There is no short cut to becoming the world’s most decorated player.

Nicol David, Queen of Squash

Mention squash and Datuk Nicol David comes to mind for most of us. The longest reigning world No. 1 (a whopping 108 consecutive months!) until September last year, since turning professional in 2000, Nicol shows no sign of slowing down.

While her prowess as a squash player speaks for itself, it is her character that shines through: former Felda United player Ndumba Makache commended Nicol’s incredible humility while he was undergoing an intensive rehabilitation programme alongside her at the National Sports Institute (ISN) in February this year. “For a person who’s achieved so much, she’s very humble and down to earth, which was great to see,” he says[1].

Arguably the most decorated player in the history of women’s squash, Nicol attributes her ability to stay grounded in the face of international acclaim to her family, friends, as well as her supporters in Malaysia and abroad. “I’m just an athlete looking to achieve my full potential. When in Malaysia, the recognition I get is a real bonus. My friends and family remind me of where I come from, and their love transfers whenever I meet people,” she says.

On top of that, Nicol’s parents, Desmond and Ann Marie, are her sports heroes. “My dad used his knowledge of playing hockey, football and athletics to develop my potential in sports while my mum taught me to study and play sports without any expectations,” she says. Most importantly, there was no pressure to perform: “They both told me that we should do our best, we can’t do better than that. As long as we enjoy everything we do, nothing else matters.”

 

Success Begins With Hard Work

Nicol’s training regime is marked by long hard hours of practice under the tutelage of Australian Liz Irving, a renowned former squash player who held the No. 2 ranking back in 1988. Nicol, who was then just a fresh high school graduate, moved to Amsterdam with her parents’ blessing to begin her training.

“My training instantly took a 360-degree turn and I went back the basics in order to develop the proper techniques, movements, tactics and strength to compete in international tours,” says Nicol. Her training sessions consist of two to four hours of practice twice a day, six days a week. This regime, backed by Irving’s professional experience, proved key to Nicol’s ascent to the top of the squash world.

Nicol has come to regard Irving as her biggest influence. “She’s a true mentor with the kindest heart. That has kept our working relationship the way it is until now, over 13 years,” she fondly says.

Nicol has shown a remarkable ability to steer clear of the injuries that commonly plague professional players. She attributes this to her sports therapist, provided by the National Sports Institute of Malaysia, who travels with her to six to eight tournaments for pre-match preparation and post-match recovery. “I was also taught to rest well, train accordingly and listen to my body to give it the recovery it needs,” she says.

 

Passion to Carry On

Shortly after becoming the first player to win the World Junior Championships twice in 1999 and 2001, Nicol embarked on a remarkable journey that would later make her the undisputed champion with a win percentage of 90.5% (304 wins, 32 losses). This includes winning eight World Open titles, six Asian Games gold medals and, most notably, holding on to the No. 1 spot for a record nine years, beating New Zealand’s Susan Devoy’s record of 105 months[2].

However, Nicol’s highly illustrious career has not been without heartbreaks. Last year proved to be a tough one for the “Queen of Squash” when she lost her No. 1 ranking to Raneem El Welily in September, sending shockwaves across Malaysia. Two months later, Nicol failed to retain her Qatar Classic title against Egypt’s Nour El-Sherbini, signifying the fifth consecutive time she has failed to advance into the finals of a major tournament.

Even so, Nicol finds a silver lining in these setbacks: “Now I have better appreciation for all that I’ve achieved and I’ll compete with a full perspective and approach towards reaching my best performance each time I step into the court,” she says.

Now I have better appreciation for all that I’ve achieved and I’ll compete with a full perspective and approach towards reaching my best performance each time I step into the court.

While facing tough competition from El Welily and Laura Massaro, she also lists up-and-coming talents as competitors; younger players are getting into the top 10, particularly Egyptian players who have taken the level of uncertainty in winning major titles a notch higher by dominating half of the top 20 list. “This uncertainty has always been there and nothing actually changes,” Nicol concedes. “It’s all a matter of what goes on at the tournament.”

 

Bid for the Olympics

Ever since picking up squash at the tender age of eight, Nicol’s thirst for raising the bar for the sport has not abated. It was therefore no surprise when she announced that she would campaign hard for squash to be included in the Olympics games, going as far as to say that she would willingly trade her eight World Open titles for a gold Olympic medal[3].

As the campaign gained momentum, more prominent athletes joined in as well. Personalities such as Roger Federer and Malaysia’s Datuk Lee Chong Wei lent their support to its cause. The bid failed for the London 2012 and Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympics, but it was the failure to get it into the Tokyo 2020 Olympics that was disheartening. Squash was again rejected, this time on the grounds that it was neither spectator-friendly nor economical[4].

Though disappointed, Nicol firmly believes that squash deserves a spot in the Olympics. “It’s unfortunate that we’ve missed out on the Olympic Games, but huge steps have also been made especially in the area of spectator viewership and the high quality of broadcasting and reach around the world.”

 

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Beyond Sports

Ever since 2002, Nicol has been the Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Malaysia, an offshoot organisation under the UN which tackles social issues ranging from poverty to youth development.

“My role in the UNDP is to create awareness about current global issues that Malaysia faces today by sharing the UNDP Millennium Development Goals through campaigns, social media activities and mission trips to rural areas.” She plans to be involved in more projects whenever she’s in Malaysia. “I hope to reach out to more youths and give them a chance to address these issues themselves.”

For a recap, read editor Ooi Kee Beng's story on Nicol, published in our February 2010 issue, at www.penangmonthly.com/meeting-a-legend-that-grows-and-grows.

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