DATUK NICOL ANN DAVID
Squash Sweetheart Hangs Her Racket
Datuk Nicol David, the nation’s squash legend and inspiration to many, hangs up her racquet after 20 long years of making Malaysia proud. She was heralded the world number one for a record-breaking 108 consecutive months and is currently ranked world number 19. Despite her fame and ‘Datukship’, she remains humble, bubbly and is always with a smile. In a laughter-filled interview, we discover Nicol’s thoughts and emotions on retiring and her foundation, a means to empower girls through squash.
This is a question on many minds; what made you put the racquet down and why now?
I was playing a tournament a year and a half ago at the US Open and didn’t quite feel the usual me on the squash court. Noticing this, my coach, Liz Irving, told me to dig deep and to ask myself what I want for myself and for squash. That’s when I had to ask the hard questions, diving deep into what I really want. It came to me that I only have two years left. When I said that out loud, it resulted in a weight off my shoulders that I finally know what I want and what I’m capable of, mentally and physically. So, that two years will be up in June 2019 and in the process, I have lots of emotions of accepting the fact that I’m retiring and what I need to plan for myself for what’s to come. It has been a learning curve, of course, but a very fulfilling one to understand that I’m finally ready to take on the next phase, give back and do more for squash.
What’s next in the horizon for you?
I found that throughout the years I’ve been playing, I have made an impact on so many people, motivating and inspiring people without fully understanding what I’ve done. The moment I was more conscious, I realised this is my place to do something for the nation, the sport and to encourage the next generation with all my experiences and share it with the rest of the world. I have three things I hold dearly, which are more immediate things that I want to work on. I want to work with the professional squash association in getting the visibility of the women’s tournaments out there as much as I can and support the women players in terms of hearing them out and bounce any ideas regarding the professional tours. The second thing is working with my foundation which is in strategic partnership with PWC and we are formulating a structure for my foundation which is empowering women through sports and it entails squash, education and soft skills. We’re keeping it small scale first before eventually expanding throughout Malaysia. My third venture is to work on my talk series and writing about my experience and how I can motivate people, particularly girls.
You have had an illustrious squash career. Can you tell us the highlight thus far?
There are so many highlights but I think the first one was winning my first world title. It was surreal, having a dream and goals set when I was young and striving to be a world champion one day and it all happened when I was only 22. It didn’t feel believable until a year later. Beyond that, I’m very proud of being the world number one for nine consecutive years.
What was the most challenging competition you partook in and why?
The biggest match that comes to my mind is my last world title win in Egypt, playing against Raneem El Weleily. I was in her home club, in her home crowd, Egyptians cheering her, the whole stadium about to fall into pieces when she was match ball and I was fighting my way through without even understanding what I was doing at the time. I ended up winning the entire match, subsequently the world title. That was one of the memorable moments in my career. It was also a challenging experience in a match.
What are your thoughts and emotions when you look back at the 20 glorious years of playing squash and retiring?
In the time that it dawned upon me that I only had two years to really push myself, I went through a roller coaster of emotions, some sad, some were confused and a little lost at times. I also felt relief, happy, empowered and like alive again. Knowing I have two years left, it burned a fire within me to push through. It was difficult to finally come to terms that this is the end of the road pertaining to squash but those emotions brought me to a state of peace, allowing me to embark on my next phase and enjoy what’s coming.
As an athlete, you’re used to a daily routine that includes training. Now that you’re retiring in June, how do you plan to fill your days?
I have a strong feeling that I will be busier, not playing squash. I feel I have so much to offer and share in so many ways with the nation and globally. There are so many things I want to do but I would really love waking up in the morning and not focusing on squash training. I would like to wake up, go to the gym to look good and just enjoy eating and travelling. I would also like to keep to my Spanish lessons as I started classes in Columbia during my training. I hope to be more fluent or try to at least because learning a language is difficult. I would like to break free from my comfort zone which is squash and to try new things, learn something new and venture into to my next phase, which involves work.
You are heralded as Malaysia’s most successful Asian Games athlete. What is the recipe for your success?
The Asian Games was actually the starting point of my success in squash. When I was 14, I won my first Asian Games gold medal and from then on, everything happened so fast. Success comes from having a great family to support and guide you as well as having a great coach, Liz Irving, former World Champion and world number two from Australia. She has been instrumental throughout my whole career, giving me the exposure and experience that she had and then taught me to reach my full potential. She equipped me with the tools to move forward. We have worked with each other for 15 to 16 years, and that’s the testament to my success; the consistency and the working relationship we have. We have a lot of mutual trust and respect which helps me progress. Liz has been by my side throughout every step of my career, guiding me and creating a great support network around me that is positive to train in, so I can be my best.
What is your opinion on the current squash scene in Malaysia?
It is pretty strong in the juniors category. They showed some great results at the recent British Junior Open earlier in January and even last year. Our seniors are also branching through as the depth is strong now on tour but we just have to be patient in developing the crop of players to go up the professional ranking without the pressure of having to be there immediately. All in good time.
Do you think there’s be another legend such as yourself in the squash industry?
I feel that there will be many legends in their own field of sports reaching their potential and I hope to see them bloom to become all that they dream of being for themselves.
What are your thoughts on women empowerment?
I am grateful that in Malaysia, I’ve been fortunate to be supported by the Malaysian Sports Council that enabled me to go out there to achieve what I wanted to achieve. That has given so much attention to squash and women in sports in Malaysia. I feel that sports and women are an integral part of empowering women, which is where my foundation comes in, empowering girls. I believe that all the fundamental values needed in life can be obtained through sports. I want to encourage more girls to pick up a sport and have a healthy living so they feel like they belong to something that has purpose. It also boosts confidence and self-esteem when you’re doing something good. I’m going by a sports perspective but I believe it has a big role in empowering girls.
What do you do for fun or to relax on the days you’re not training?
I actually do nothing (laughter ensues). When I had a big week and I trained really hard, I love not doing anything for a day like watching TV. Alternatively, I try being active by leaving the house to walk around at the mall window shopping, going to a park or make some time for reflection. If I really have ample time on my hands, I either travel or sketch. I would also try to fit in some dance classes. When I was in Amsterdam, I took up basic street dance classes which also served as semi-condition training. These activities are fun to do and they keep me entertained.
Mother’s Day is May 12. How do you typically celebrate Mother’s Day?I’m hardly in Malaysia, so it’s a little tricky for me. I’m grateful to have two older sisters who live in Penang, so they take on the daughter duties. When I do have time and I’m back, we definitely go out for lunch or dinner and pamper her a little bit. She has brought us all up in the best ways possible and she is truly a role model to all of us.
Is there any significant teaching or advice from your mother that you practise to date?
My mother is a teacher. So being a teacher, she is very patient with us and she has always given importance to education. That said, my parents didn’t pressure us in terms of school and sports. They trusted that we were capable of doing what we wanted and to give it our absolute best. My mum would always say that if you have given something your very best (in my case, squash), that’s all that matters in the end and I carry that advice with me, always.
What is the one thing that you have in common with your mum?
We share the love for art, music and dance. My mother is the artsy fartsy one in the family and my sisters and I inherit that quality from her, while sports, from my father. What she really likes to do is to be in the background and helping people. My mother shows so much humility with people and it’s a trait of hers that I have looked up to since I was young and I intend to do the same; to treat people the way I want to be treated.
Favourite dish that mum cooks for you is…
There are so many. I love her sambal petai with prawns, and chilli crab. She cooks it especially for me when I’m back in town because we’re the only ones in the family who enjoy petai and crab. So we’ll feast, just the both us.
Finally, what is the goal you want to achieve in the next 10 years?
Wow… 10 years. I’m actually hoping to get through this year (laughter). I would love to see my foundation come to fruition and be able to witness the girls in the foundation share their stories of what they’ve learnt and how they have embodied the teachings from the foundation through the sport. I also hope to continue being happy, travelling and enjoying life.
Words by Hiranmayii Awli Mohanan
Photographer : Barathan Amuthan @framesbybarathanamuthan
Videographer: Samuel Goh U-Wei @Samguw
Hairstylist & Make-up: Derek Tan @Anagen
Venue: Four Seasons Hotel Kuala Lumpur
Wardrobe: Alia Bastamam @aliabastamamkl