I have known squash star Nicol David since the diminutive lass dominated the junior squash scene with her single-minded determination. She has been dominant for two decades. And through it all, she has never lost her humility.
The people in the media had a nickname for Nicol David when she was a young fighter reaching for the stars.
We called her the Energizer Bunny – she would just run and run and run for every shot. Her battery would never wear off.
I remember writing about her winning her first professional title in Finland in only her second outing as a professional player.
It was headlined “FINN-TASTIC” in The Star. It was an unforgettable achievement. And on an unforgettable date, too – Feb 29, 2000.
It was the days before WhatsApp, Instagram or other social media platforms. I called her in Finland from the Petaling Jaya office late at night trying to capture her excitement at winning her first pro title.
She was this little sweet thing – thanking everyone for her achievements and grateful for that winning start.
I saw her humility then.
Fast forward 19 years – Nicol has won every big thing the world of squash has to offer. After years of tireless service, the eight-time world champion retired from the sport in June.
On Thursday, she visited us at the Sports Desk to discuss the monthly column she has been writing with us since June this year.
I had expected “Datuk” Nicol to strut into the office with her head held high. To my surprise, I saw the same little sweet thing – flashing that infectious smile.
Fame and fortune has not changed Nicol. She remains the coy and modest person that I knew as a junior gal.
Yes, she has worked hard. Yes, she has sacrificed much. But I believe it’s her humility over the years that has helped her maintain her position at the top of the game for the longest time.
In her first column with The Star, she pointed out that she almost fell into the trap of allowing the fame to take charge of her life. Fortunately, she snapped out of it.
In fact, Nicol wants to give back as much as she can to the other athletes. I’m sure her motivational talks will be inspiring and her advice spot on – as she knows what an athlete has to go through.
All athletes strive for success – but many get caught in their own fame and don’t know how to untangle the mess.
They allow success to go to their heads and overwhelm them. And when defeat comes, as it inevitably does, they are unable to cope.
For some it leads to depression, confusion and self-doubt.
I remember this 45-minute drive with badminton legend Rudy Hartono from the Kuala Lumpur airport to a function with my newspaper 15 years ago. The Indonesian talked about how he almost allowed success to get to his head.
“I was hopelessly depressed. There was no peace in my heart. I wanted to be a superstar all the time and set such high expectations on myself. I wanted more and more. I had won eight All-England titles and I could not accept the fact that I was not winning anymore, ” he told me then.
Fortunately, Hartono realised that pride was not going to take him anywhere except to self-destruction.
He decided not to let his success in sport define him but accepted both the ups and downs in his career.
The lives of Nicol and Hartono are testament of how humility can take athletes through the ups and downs of their lives.
Stay grounded no matter how high one reaches in sports. Stay strong no matter how low one falls from grace – but bounce back.
These are the hallmarks of true champions.
The writer has seen athletes who allow success to get to their heads. And she has seen many who struggle with self-doubt. The struggle is real but there is always a way out.