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Sunday August 30, 2009

The girl behind the icon

If there is one world champion who is admired by every Malaysian, it has to be Nicol David.

SPORTS can reveal much about one’s character. The way a person deals with triumph and failure and how she strategises or plays the game reflects her approach to life.

Datuk Nicol Ann David is the undisputed world champion of squash. But what endears her to Malaysians at home and abroad are her humility, sportsmanship and conduct.

“Just Nicol, please,” she told newsmen after receiving the Darjah Setia Pangkuan Negeri from her home state of Penang in July 2008. She was the youngest person ever to be conferred a Datukship in Malaysia.

Winner and supporters: Nicol David (centre) surrounded by cheering Malaysian students after retaining the women’s World Open squash title in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 2006

While the whole country gets swept up in a wave of euphoria every time she adds another title to her long list, this 26-year-old is always focused on one objective – to play her next game well.

“My dad told me to give every game my best, and I really can’t do better than my best,” Nicol says in an e-mail interview from her training base in Amsterdam.

With every new title she adds to her bag, comes the pressure to do even better. How does she handle that?

“In the beginning, the attention was very new to me because I never imagined being a world champion. There was pressure everywhere.

Desmond David plays a big part in his daughter’s life. In this 1996 photo, he welcomes her home after she wins the Scottish and British Open Under-14 titles.

“But it was up to me to take it or not. My focus is to perform well and the results will show. I can’t expect anything else from myself. There are people who are very appreciative of my achievements and I’m grateful that I have Malaysia supporting me.”

Asked what being a Malaysian means to her, she says: “Malaysia is truly my home and I take it wherever I go. It’s a part of me that will always stay strong and true because I had the best upbringing, surrounded by different races, beautiful nature, friendly people and the most amazing food. Growing up in a country like Malaysia is a luxury and I appreciate every bit of it.”

Nicol, born to engineer Desmond David and retired schoolteacher Ann Marie on Aug 26, 1983, had an ordinary childhood. “My parents always had to keep me occupied because I was hyperactive! That’s why I picked up squash,” she recalls.

Her parents are a major influence in her life. “They allowed my two older sisters and me to take up squash and other sports while we were in school to get a feel of what suited us better.

Snip, snip: Nicol has her hair done at the Commonwealth Games Village in Melbourne (2006).

“I always wanted to be as good as my sisters in whatever they picked up and that is probably how I got my determination to always do better in anything I do.”

When a family friend built Penang’s first public squash centre, the Bukit Dumbar Squash Centre (now called the Penang International Squash Centre), Liane and Cheryl David went there to play. Little Nicol tagged along, swinging discarded, battered racquets to release the energy that would later become her strength as a professional player.

She practised steadily until she got chosen to represent her state in the 1994 Sukma Games.

In a 2006 interview with The Star, squash official Ee Phoeh Hoon recalled that initially, she thought that gangly Nicol, clad in an oversized tracksuit, was another official’s daughter.

“In the team final, we were tied 1-1 against Perak,” said Ee, who has been credited with spotting the-then 11-year-old’s raw talent.

“Liane had lost the first match, but Cheryl won the second. In the third singles, Nicol was up against a stronger 18-year-old Perak girl. She won the first game but lost the second. Before the conclusive third game, she ran to the toilet.

The dedicated player trains for hours daily, six days a week, with her coach Liz Irving.

“I went after her. Nicol was vomiting and said she hadn’t felt well all day. But she didn’t want her sisters to worry. She told me, ‘Don’t worry Miss Ee, I can do it.’”

She did – and the Penang team clinched the Sukma gold medal.

“Nicol is hugely talented,” Ee said. “Even at that tender age, her forte was her mental strength and ability to focus on the task at hand. When we do court runs, girls usually do 19 or 20 laps, and exceptionally strong boys can do 24. Nicol was the only girl who could manage 25.”

She was fondly called the energiser bunny (after a battery advertisement) for her extraordinary speed and agility, which became the bane of fellow competitors.

How does this single-minded player prepare herself, mentally and physically, before stepping into the courts?

“There must be a set game plan to begin with, while warming up before a match,” Nicol says. “If I know I have done all the right preparations and training leading up to the tournament, I can only trust that I will give it my best.”

Her years of hard work are reaping results but, true to her humble nature, she credits others for her achievements.

“My family should be the first to be recognised for my success. My parents have given me their complete love and support and have never asked for anything more than to see me happy in whatever I do. My sisters have been great throughout my years of growing up – they look out for me.

“I also have a lot of good people and close friends who play a huge part in my success and keep me where I am.”

One of these is surely Liz Irving, her coach since 2002.

At 16, when most of her peers were immersed in either their studies or social activities, Nicol won the 1999 British Junior Open, where she was champion for both the Under-17 and Under-19 categories, the SEA Games (senior and team categories champion), and the German Junior Open (Under-19 champion).

Her greatest feat that year was becoming the youngest winner of the Women’s World Junior Championships in Antwerp, where she beat compatriot Leong Siu Lynn in just 30 minutes.

Nicol entered the professional circuit in 2000 by joining the Women’s International Squash Players Association (Wispa). She then won her first pro title at the Savcor Finnish Open.

But at the 2002 Asian Games in Busan, she failed to retain the gold medal she’d won four years earlier. Some people wondered if she could really dominate the sport, or was merely a flash in the pan.

“It was the lowest point of my life,” she says. “I took some time off to evaluate what I needed to do next, and decided to move to Amsterdam to train under Liz Irving.

“Liz was a former world No. 2, so she knows exactly what it’s like to be at the top of the rankings.”

Moving to Amsterdam was the “turning point” in Nicol’s life. It signalled the start of a routine that involves two to four hours of training twice daily, six days a week. During those sessions, she works on her fitness, speed and strength, and her game.

When Nicol returned to the circuit in 2003, she was ranked 53rd. Within a year, she was among the world’s top 10.

In 2005, she hogged the headlines with a string of historic wins. She became the first Malaysian to win the British Open and the first Asian to wear the women’s crown when she beat long-time rival Australian Natalie Grinham.

That same year, she was the first local player to win the women’s CIMB Malaysian Open in the event’s 31-year history. And in December 2005, she became the youngest world champion when she won the Hong Kong World Open.

The wins placed her at No. 1 in the world ranking.

Nicol recalls that the happiest point of her life was “‘when I won my first World Open in Hong Kong because my dream of being a champion had turned into reality.”

But, as every champ knows, climbing to the top entails lots of sacrifice. For her, being based in Amsterdam means long stretches of time away from home and those she loves.

“It’s difficult being away from my family and friends for a long time, but they understand exactly what I have to do and their support is what keeps me going.”

On the plus side, squash has taken her around the globe and enabled her to meet countless people, from fellow players to royalty, sports personalities, sponsors and fans.

“I love this game. I have been able to travel and make new friends since competing at a young age. When I made the decision to immerse fully in the sport and be a really good player, I knew I had to venture outside my comfort zone and learn new things.”

Does she get to visit places of interest when on the road?

“Most tournaments nowadays are held in cities which I’ve been to – I’ve seen the sights already. When I play in a new city, I try to stay an extra day, if possible, to check out a few places.”

Which country does she feel most comfortable playing in?

“The Cayman Islands, because it feels like you’re at a holiday resort and the crowds watching the game are so vibrant.”

She is too modest to add that winning the inaugural Cayman Islands Open in May this year was doubly exciting because her opponent was Natalie Grainger of the United States, whom she had lost to in the final of the Kuala Lumpur Open in March.

That loss spelt the end of Nicol’s 56-match unbeaten run.

Following her May win, she has added the Texas Open, Seoul Open, World Games, Malaysian Open and CIMB Singapore Masters trophies to her collection.

What’s next for Nicol, who began her fourth year as world No. 1 this month?

“My immediate goal is to do well in next year’s Commonwealth Games. On the whole, I would like to improve my squash and be a complete player.”

Is there one thing she would really love to do that she hasn’t done yet?

“Too many things ... I have a list. At the top are sky diving and bungee jumping,” says Nicol, who unwinds by chilling out at home in front of the TV, or listening to music. (The most significant thing she’s spent her prize monies on is an iMac!)

“Sometimes I wander around the parks in Amsterdam, or go window shopping.”

Looking at shops and window displays probably feeds the creative side of Malaysia’s goodwill ambassador for the United Development Programme, who lists design as another passion.

After she retires from squash, she would like to set up an academy as well as her own product design company.

The squash academy will be in line with her belief that to elevate the quality of sports in the country, “we have to continue to encourage more involvement in schools and make sports vital to education. This way we can find and develop good athletes from the grassroots and nurture them to reach their full potential with the facilities we have.”

When she was younger, Nicol, a top scorer in school, had wanted to be an engineer. She still loves to draw and can sometimes be seen sketching while waiting around the courts.

Does she have a hand in designing her squash outfits?

“For now, I just choose what I like to wear on court. This will give me a chance someday to design my own line of clothing.”

That will be awhile yet because she plans to play for “another eight years. Hopefully, my body can hold up.”

Finally, the inevitable question that every young woman gets asked: Does she have a boyfriend?

“Well, I have been on the go, travelling and training, so that gives me less time to settle down. If I do meet someone, he would have to appreciate sport, I presume,” Nicol says.

Datuk Nicol David comes under the spotlight again in ‘Malaysian Sporting Heroes: The Story So Far’, which will be aired on Astro SuperSport (channel 811) tomorrow, 6.30pm.

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