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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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" You try to be ready for whatever comes your way"

Profiles

Meeting a legend that grows and grows

Champions don't grow on trees, especially champions like Nicol David, who has been world No.1 in woman's squash since August 2006. Ooi Kee Beng tries to find out what makes her tick, and tick so consistently and impressively. What he finds out is that although this 26-year-old already dominates the game globally, her best is yet to come.

Ooi Kee Beng: I had a very long chat with your father, Desmond, a couple of days ago. I was hoping to find out what he considers to be the special elements that make Nicol David the indomitable champion in women's squash that she is. If anyone knows what these are, it would be him, and your mother of course.

Only late in the conversation did it become clear to me that there were at least three factors that help explain your achievements.

First, you grew up in a family that is and was passionate about sports. I am told that your great-grandfather did not care much for sports. Despite his attempts at discouraging his children to engage in sports, your grandfather, A.C.David, actually reacted strongly against that, and he in turn supported his children in their sporting interests.

With such encouragement, your father became an excellent player in hockey and football. He was in fact famous before your time as the goalkeeper of Penang's football team, and also represented the country.

Your parents showered you three girls with a lot of love and attention, and also encouraged all of you to engage in sports.

You, being the youngest, therefore had this active existential space laid out for you by your parents and your sisters. This healthy social atmosphere nurtured you in all sorts of ways; not least of all , it allowed you, without fear or favour, to develop a strong sense of competitiveness.

Second, you were lucky in coming into contact with squash enthusiasts such as Oh Siong Tit, who were trying to interest young Penangites in the game, and your early coach, Ee Phoeh Hoon.

Finally, your father remembers you as an extremely focused baby who would watch her favourite TV programmes intensely, even at the age of six months. He shared with me the fact that you, despite being a very nice person, have a real 'killer instinct'. Unlike your sisters, you did not, and do not, mind beating your opponent "9-0, 9-0, 9-0".

To what extent am I correct in coming to these conclusions?

Nicol David: Yeah, I had a very good upbringing. My sisters were always there. They always enjoyed the game, and I wanted to be like them. And despite the difference in our standards, they would go out on the court with me along. That's how I started building up my game, and got better and better.

You grew up with squash then? It's like the air you breath, isn't it?

Pretty much so. Here (Penang International Squash Centre, Bukit Dumbar) was like a second home. All the people here, the community, were great. For example, Ms Ee, our coach, pretty much created a family feel here. Everybody who came here got along very well.

That was the beauty of the place, it was like home. Of course, with one's sisters around as well, one was halfway there.

Would you credit Ms Ee for laying at least part of the foundation for your excellent squash game?

Yeah, I think she did for everyone. She started the foundation to develop junior players, to get them to work together and enjoy themselves. That was the feeling I always had when I came here.

pic 7 nicol
Photo: theSun
The thing is, I never thought too much about it. I would just go in, and I wanted to win, and I give it my all. And that panned out all right

Was there anything in the beginning in your game that you had to work hard to overcome?

I just enjoyed the whole thing, being with all these people, of all ages. You learned form the older players and they would look after you. It was all fun.

The thing is, I never thought too much about it. I would just go in, and I wanted to win, and I would give it my all. And that panned out all right. So when I started going overseas, and it was all working out as well, I thought it was more fun. I was meeting new people, new faces.

It's when you move from one stage to the next, like going professional, that thing change, and you have to work harder.

What fascinates me about your career is, one can become a champion. You had a good start, a loving family. But to stay at the top for so long at your age is awe-inspiring. That is quite an achievement.

I never expected it to happen so soon. My coach Liz Irving, who has tremendous experience on the circuit, has the ability to see potential and she knew where I needed to develop. But even for her, things have happened more quickly that she expected.

Becoming world number one and world champion for the first time (in January 2006, and staying there for three months) was of course overwhelming, because that's what you had been dreaming about, what you had been aspiring to be. Getting there actually drains you, and after that you have to feel for the next step. And when you get back there the second time (in August 2006, after falling to No. 2 for four months), you feel justified and you know what competition is all about, and are ready to move forward.

Your father said expert opinion has it that you will peak as a player only in a couple of years. That must scare the competition quite a bit.  

(laughs) I know that I am still learning more about myself, about how I can handle the professional circuit. I am trying to be an all-round squash player, and picking up bits and pieces to add to my game. It will take time.

Even when you are peaking, I am sure there will still be room for improvement.

So the resistance - the competition - folded more easily that you thought.

(laughs) Yeah, yeah. Exactly (laughs).

You don't seem to be suffering from the pressure.

The more you grow, the more you just have to learn as much as possible from people around you. You want to bring the right team together, you want to create an atmosphere where you feel comfortable, and everything is well looked after, so that you can do your job; put all that training and support to good use. You just go for it. Like they say, you can't do more than your best, you know.

I hear that one of Ms Ee's methods was to promise each of you - winner and loser - 20 sen for every point you won. That made you take one point at the time, and every point mattered. That was a brilliant idea.

It's about the small steps. We tend to see too big a picture, you want to win. But how do you make sure of that? It's all about the small steps, one at a time. Sometimes we lose that focus, but that's what we want to develop. It's the mental attitude you take on for every match that makes the difference.

I can imagine that when you are 8-1 down, you might just give up if you don't think in small steps.

Yes, you have to keep going at it, one point at a time. In the meantime, you have to remember that the person who is leading by 8-1, being far ahead, might have lost focus on the small steps. This gives you an advantage.

It's all a learning experience. You learn from your losses and other experiences so that they won't happen again.

Any regrets or disappointments?

No, I don't think so. What I have been doing has gotten me this far (laughs). It's all part and parcel of the whole experience. You try to be ready for whatever comes your way. You will have your ups and downs, but you are working towards something, so at the end of the day you can't go too far wrong.

People say its 90% perseverance and 10% talent. What do you say to that?

Yea, it's a lot of hard work. You have to work at it. At the same time, with the hard work, your sense of accomplishment when you win is all the much greater.

I have always wanted that feeling of doing well, and achieving things. That's what drives me to keep training, and working hard.

Do you sometimes feel sorry for the people you trounce?

(laughs) Well, no. They know what it's all about when they enter the game. You have to keep making the point clear to the opponent; "I am not letting this go until the very last point."

Are you always so competitive?

In everything. Not with my sisters though. But they always let me have my way. We are very, very close. Strangely, there is never any sibling rivalry between us, there is no jealousy. There are three years between Lianne and Cheryl, and another between Cherly and me; so, a six-year difference between the oldest and the youngest.

We feel that whoever wins is the one who plays better. Friends of mine seem to think that whatever I do I have to get it right.

So yes, I do seem to want to do well in everything I get into.

pic 5 nicol
"I have always wanted that feeling of doing well, and achieving things. That's what drives me to keep training, and working hard." Photo: Kwong Wah Yit Poh

At the same time, you have a reputation for being an extremely nice person. Being competitive does not mean being nasty, obviously. You do not seem to be driven by outside pressure; it's all coming from within you, all inherent.

Every competitive sport you go into is a mental challenge. You go onto the court, and beyond the physical part, you have to exert yourself mentally. The challenge is to be prepared when you go in there. You never know. You just have to be prepared.

Do the handsome young men of Amsterdam, where you do your training, distract you in any way?

(laughs) No, no time for that. Nowadays I am never in any one place for more than three weeks. After I took my SPM exams, with support from the Sports Council and my parents, I decided to compete full-time for a year. It was not an easy decision; you never know how things will go.

But my ranking shot up tremendously that year, and so I have continued.

At the moment, it's very intense. My focus is on squash. Later on, I will go into something that interest me, perhaps in some artistic field, possibly clothing product design.

What angers you? What saddens you?

Not much actually. The difficult part is handling defeat. And since I don't want that to happen again, that's why I still do what I do . You have to go through your defeat and find your way, and grow from it.

I meet so many different and interesting people, and there is no reason to be angry about anything. Why waste my time with that? There is so much else going your way.

With your success, do you feel that you are being cocooned, shut out from a normal life?

Strangely, no, I don't. I still feel I have a lot to learn. I have good friends and my family will always keep me in my place. I am comfortable with that. That won't change. It's just that the appreciation form the public and the people around you is a big bonus. The positiveness surrounding you and the appreciation that people show you, all that you have that extra edge of having people behind you.

But the reality is that, I am just a squash player, like many others.

What else do you look forward to?

I am involved with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). I am their goodwill ambassador. Later on, I hope to have more time to give something back. Also, if I can be one of those who can bring squash into the Olympics, that would be great.

pic 3 nicol

Now, with your fame, do you get suspicious of people?

You are open to the things, you know what's there and go according to what you know and are comfortable with. The more you travel and the older you get, the more experienced you become. You don't get suspicious, you just see more clearly what you can expect, and what people expect of you.

The main thing is to form a good relationship with people, and take it from there.

You seem prepared for the fame from the start.

Well, I was taught well (laughs).

How does hotel life get to you?

From the beginning, I travelled and saw a lot of cities where the tournaments are held. I always stayed till the end, so I had opportunities to sightsee. I wasn't winning all the time then. I still travel to the same cities that I have seen a lot of. So I just focus on squash.

I do try between match and training to move around and see some sights.

I understand that you have to make all the arrangements on your own when you travel to compete.

All the squash players have to do that. It keeps you on your toes, all the things that you have to look after. You are responsible for yourself. You can't expect people to be doing all that for you. In the beginning, you do get some help.

Your father told me that whenever you come back to Penang, you have to drop by a char koay teow stall on the way. Is that right?

Yes, that's true. Being away from Penang so much, any such stall will do (laughs). Also, my mum is a good cook, and she makes sure she cooks all my favourite dishes when I am home.

One of the good things about traveling is that you get to learn about new cultures. I always eat the local dishes.

During training, I eat a bit better, but when I am back in Penang on holiday, like now, I let go a bit.

pic 4 nicol
Nicol David with Darjah Setia Pangkuan Negeri, awarded by the Yang di-Pertuan Negeri Tun Abdul Rahman Abbas in 2008. Photo: Kwong Wah Yit Poh

Music favourites? Films? Books?

R&B, hip-hop. Sometimes chill-out music like jazz or lounge music.

I've been reading Malcolm Gladwell, who does research on how our mind works, and brings in a lot of factors, in books like Outliners or Blink.

Favourite airline? Malaysian Airline?

Yes, I used to travel a lot with them. they used to sponsor me. Right now, they have a lot of changes going on. But the Sports Council of Malaysia still sponsors me, so I fly MAS a lot, yes.

You went to Convent Green Lane, I understand. How many languages do you speak? How's your Dutch?

Just English. Hokkien, I understand from my mother. It sounds funny when I speak it. Tamil is not spoken at home, except by my grandfather.

I do want to know many more languages. I will just have to sit down someday and get down to it.

What is your training routine like?

About three to four hours a day. Six days a week. On Thursdays, we sleep in and rest, and train only in the afternoon. Sunday is the day off. That's when I do nothing, just laze around.

How has the state and the nation been treating you?

Quite unreal. Getting so much back Malaysians and Penangites, who have been so appreciative, is quite overwhelming. Squash players from other countries who come to Malaysia are very surprised by the reception.

What message do you have for young people?

My dream was to be world champion someday. That has come true, I am living my dream. So, have a dream. Find what you love doing and stick to it, that's my advice.

How do you think you will reign will end? Will you retire while at the top, or will you fight your way till the end?

I think I will want to keep on top of my game. I want to keep going for as long as my body lasts. I love the sport, and I will stay as long as possible.

That's not good news for your opponents.

It's about looking after your body, looking after every aspect. Those are your tools to keep you going.

After that, there is a lot one can do. Maybe have an academy, or a design company someday, who knows.

Your father and I were discussing the possibilities of Penang launching a regular tournament of the world standard for woman's squash in the near future. Would you be supportive of that?

Yes, of course. The thing is that the sponsorship has to be a certain level for players like me to be able to participate as part of our ranking process. So once you have sponsors that are generous enough, we can have such a regular tournament in Penang. With the new portable glass courts, you can move the venue around, especially for the finals.

Well, the international Squash players love coming to Penang. Given the right occasion, they will definitely come.

pic 2 nicol

This interview with Nicol Ann David took place at noon on December 13, 2009, at the Penang International Squash Centre, Bukit Dumbar.

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