DATO’ NICOL DAVID was the first famous personality to be profiled by Penang Monthly. This was in February 2010, in the magazine’s third issue, in an article titled “Meeting a Legend that Grows and Grows”. Much ink has been printed since then, and much water has flowed under the bridge. Ooi Kee Beng met up with Nicol again on March 15, 2021 to talk about her life as a squash competition retiree.
How has Covid-19 been for you? Have you been stuck somewhere?
I’ve been away the whole time during Covid-19. I was in Colombia. No doubt, it has been a tough time for all people around the world and for me, it was a time to take a step back and take time for myself working through planning for the next stage of my life. It was a stop button for me to reset and to decide what to do. My team and I finally have time for my foundation, the Nicol David Organisation. We managed to set up the fundamentals for this. I am also doing motivational talks to share my stories and experiences to help people in certain aspects of their lives.
You were in Bogota doing all this? So why Bogota at the first place? You are settled there now, aren’t you?
Yes, I have been living there for three years now, starting at the very end of my squash career. I was there training at high altitude and after I retired I thought since it’s such a nice place, why not have the best of both worlds and stay both in Colombia and Malaysia doing my work? I enjoy Colombia, such great vibes there.
Are you planning to stay there a long period then?
Yes, but mostly I am going to be in Malaysia due to the amount of work that I will be doing here.
Back in 2010 when I last interviewed you for Penang Monthly, we talked about your childhood and your rise as an international squash star, and about a lot of the winning you still wanted to do. This time, let’s talk about the future that you envisage after your squash career. You’ve mentioned about your foundation, but can you tell us more about your other plans for the future?
My future mostly focuses on three different areas. First is the foundation for empowering boys and girls through sports; working with youths and with children, to bring values I have learned from squash to them and bring education to them – in terms of improving their proficiency in English. I would really like to inspire the next generation in that way. The next thing will be to advocate for women’s health and to start doing more talks at motivational events for attending women to feel that they can be strong and powerful in their own ways. I would also like to take on some ambassadorial roles.
The things that you are doing right now, do they satisfy the competitive spirit that you have? I remember during our first interview, we talked about how you didn’t mind beating opponents in squash by 11-0, 11-0, 11-0. Has that “Nicol David” taken a back row seat now that you have taken on a role of helping the world at large?
Yes, my focus in life is definitely different right now, I have gone from being very competitive to just enjoying moments in life. The competing forced me to be always at the top, wanting to beat opponents, doing whatever needed to be done. This is a new me whom I discovered around the time I was about to retire; I realised that my priorities needed to change and I began wanting to use what I had learned from squash to inspire others. That has become my priority. The only competitive part now is to challenge myself on whether I can put these projects together.
Few months ago, the online competition the World Games Greatest Athlete of All Time caused a buzz in Malaysia – I voted for you, of course. The whole cyber-Malaysia was in great excitement and there were messages around calling for people to vote for Nicol. Many did, obviously. You won overwhelmingly. How does that sort of public acknowledgement feel compared to winning a golden trophy or being awarded a huge sum of money? How does that kind of victory feel? Must be quite different.
It felt special to get that nomination to start with and afterwards, it was a whole new experience where everyone came forward to mobilise their friends to vote for me till we reached the finishing line. It was such a big thing for me. Now the nation and even the squash community have recognised me for what I have achieved; I feel very grateful for it. I felt overwhelmed when I got that award and it was a real special moment for me. I am very thankful to everyone who supported me, for giving me this opportunity to shine and hold the Malaysian flag up once again.
Well, as a voter, I did think that there was a lot of dammed-up wish among Malaysians to honour you; many of us had felt that the government had not honoured you enough over the years, and that award was a chance for everyone to show how proud they are of you. I have heard about your “The Dream Remains” campaign to promote squash in Malaysia. What is that?
It was my retirement campaign. It began in February 2019 and went on over the six months leading up to my last match, which was at the British Open in May. It was more to show people what I got out of squash. I shared the three values that became clear to me, and that was Power, Determination and Heart. Those were the three things that defined me in squash. The Dream was not just about squash, but also what I wanted to do next. I did a tournament in KL which was called The Dream Remains, an exhibition event. My team and I got three top players including Malaysian player Low Wee Wern, and women squash players to come showcase squash and get Malaysian juniors on the court with them to train. There were 125 kids from Malaysia at that event and they came to play with me and the top players. They got to watch top squash and we had great crowd support. It was wonderful for me to see so much enthusiasm. There were kids of 8 to 9 years old. I hope I get to do more of these events, and not just in Malaysia, after the pandemic dies down.
I heard that you’ve also put together a collection of speeches and writings, is that right?
I did opinion pieces for The Star in 2019 and 2020 on my thoughts so that people could get to know my mind and what I really want to stand for, and how they can use these ideas to their advantage.
I can see that there are many new careers for you to pick from after your retirement. You are so full of energy and enthusiasm, and ambassadorial roles are perfect for you. That’s wonderful. You had also tried very hard to get squash to be accepted into the Olympics. If squash were included, Malaysia would easily have won quite a few medals. But how is that going? Is squash going to be accepted into the Olympics anytime soon?
I don’t think so; I think the Olympic committee had made up their minds. They have different sports to bring in, and squash is not one of them. They go for sports that will enhance their position. X Games sports or extreme sports are more appealing to the young, and can attract younger generations. Squash is an all-around sport and it’s global, and the young do play it. Everything is there but it still doesn’t get the same consideration from the Olympic committee. We have done everything we could, but I think now squash just has to focus on building itself up and not try to fit in the box the committee is trying to put it in. That box is always changing, and it is never to our advantage to try too hard. It is better that we promote the game. We truly have strong and powerful athletes. One day, the committee will probably come around and want us in. It won’t be anytime soon, but I really hope that our squash athletes can then finally say that they are Olympians, and start winning medals for our country.
Nicol, does it scare you that you have accomplished so much at such a young age and that you have “retired” as well? Are you looking into other areas not connected with squash?
I feel that squash has given me a pathway leading to many things, whether it’s to help people or reach out to the young. It has opened up so many avenues. The International Women’s Day, Week and Month that we are celebrating have offered platforms where I have done some talks, panel speaking and engagements. From this, women can actually take on something good or be inspired and learn something new, and not fear what they fear. It can give them a sense of hope. My retirement opened up many avenues to see where I can venture.
Any plans for further studies?
Yes, now with the pandemic, I finally had time to study online and I did a positive psychology online course. I never thought that I would go back to studying, but I enjoy being a student studying online and getting through that specialisation. I am fascinated with psychology.
If you ever want to do research or writing based in Penang, Penang Institute will be happy to have you as a Distinguished Fellow.
I will think about it for sure.
Two years into your retirement now, do you feel that you did it too early or was it just the right time?
It was perfect timing. I was at a stage where I knew I had nothing left to offer or nothing really left to gain. The hunger was also lacking. I didn’t have the edge that I had when I was wanting to be the best and to get to the top. I was in a going-down mode. But really, I needed to go through that in order to know what I really wanted and what was going on inside me. I had to let go of squash to take on a new life; it was definitely the right thing to do. I am happy now with my retirement and that I now have time to enjoy what I have achieved all these years. But this only happens when you are finally out of it, you can’t fully grasp what’s happening when you are still in there. Now, I am fully experiencing it.
That’s wonderful to hear, and you should definitely be very proud of everything that you have done. How is your Spanish, by the way?
It’s getting better but I still need to take classes. I am trying my best to keep up. Language is tough. For me, I know it takes a bit longer but slowly and gradually, I will get there and get a little more fluent.
Speaking of language… you said earlier you’re teaching young people English. Is it because you know the need to have a good command of English in an international setting? Is that what’s pushing you to teach it? I assume the need for it is different in Bogota and in Penang?
I’m doing it only in Malaysia. The foundation will be based here. It’s still in the midst of registration and there’s probably still a lot of work to do until the launch next year. English proficiency in Malaysia is really going down and I want to see if I can offer to children that little extra support needed outside of school. Maybe this can give them the needed boost for their future.
That’s wonderful. What was the last book you have been reading?
That would be Innovation Tech in the Workplace? I am not a business person but I want to understand what is happening in the world today.
Covid-19 does make us think about a lot of things.
Yes, to be prepared and be ready for anything that comes along.
The future is rather uncertain. Here in Penang, we try to work out what new jobs will come along, and to advise the young. I personally think that the humanities are on the way back, people are more interested in psychology and history and everything that has to do with the human condition.
Yes, I think we have to be encouraging. I know that the pandemic has been the toughest time and I feel so much for those who have lost someone close to them and those who have really suffered in business. We have to be more compassionate toward others and we have to convince them that we can bounce back. People should never feel bad about asking for help.
If I may compare this conversation to the one we had 11 years ago, I am struck by how varied your interests have become. Back then, you were totally absorbed in squash.
Exactly, I never thought of what I could do outside of squash. Now I see that I can actually tap into many things. When letting go of squash, it opened my mind to the opportunities that are there for me. I am very willing to take on these new opportunities and not be afraid. Obviously it was scary at first, but I had great support from close friends, my family, my team… they were all there supporting me in the right direction. So I had the confidence. There’s a lot of learning to do, but the more I develop, the more I dare to learn new things… how to do a PowerPoint, for example.
Nicol, thank you for this half an hour. Welcome back to Penang. As I mentioned, Penang Institute would love to work with you. We are right here on Jalan Brown.
Thank you so much, it is great to hear from you again.
Thank you so much… and warmest regards to your parents, till we meet again.
Dato’ Dr. Ooi Kee Beng is the Executive Director of Penang Institute. His recent books include The Eurasian Core and its Edges: Dialogues with Wang Gungwu on the History of the World (ISEAS 2016). Homepage: wikibeng.com