Article and image courtesy of the New York Daily Times.
For nearly a half hour Monday, the world’s No. 1 female squash player had the rapt attention of two dozen pre-teen and high school-age girls seated alongside one wall of Court four at Harlem’s SL Green StreetSquash Center.
Nicol David, who sported gray jeans, high heels and a black sweater, looked more street-fashion smart than court ready, but the young student-athletes knew plenty about the thirty-year-old, Malaysian-born squash star before she arrived on 115th Street, having watched videos of her squash competitions on YouTube and Googling her background.
But when it came time for a Q&A with David, following a few opening remarks, several of the young girls were barely able to muster their queries for the squash star — call it a case of awestruck-itis.
“I just want to say, you’re awesome, ” one bespectacled girl said, before asking how David varied her shots in games.
The 17, 000 square- foot StreetSquash center, founded in 1999, is a nonprofit that offers a sports-based after-school program to boys and girls, starting in the sixth grade. Sasha Diamond-Lenow, the center’s director of social work, said StreetSquash has partnerships with several schools — including Thurgood Marshall Academy and the Opportunity Charter School — and serves as an important facility to help empower kids to reach their goals.
Squash is only one part of the experience.
“One of the issues at this age is girls don’t really push themselves, and don’t have a lot of role models at this point, ” said Diamond-Lenow. “We try to do gender specific exercises here, not just squash training, and continue to encourage them.”
David spoke about her humble beginnings — she began playing squash at five — and how important her parents were and still are, with their support of her athletic goals.
“They knew a balance (between academics and athletics) was very important, ” David told the girls. “My family was always very supportive of me and my squash and my studies.”
Later, she said that squash “really helped me with prioritizing, my timing and planning.
“It gave me focus to study, ” she added. “That was the challenge. Moving forward after school is always difficult. You’re always given the thought that you need to get a degree, make money from a job.”
David said squash “wasn’t too big at the time in Malaysia” when she was a child, but that she was fortunate enough to take up the sport when the country’s national sports council began to provide funding to different sports, including squash.
One of the biggest boosts was when squash became a core sport in the Commonwealth Games in 1998, which were held in Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur.
Once David began to climb in the international rankings during her teen years, her parents — Desmond, a retired civil engineer, and Ann, a retired teacher — told the youngest of their three daughters, “If you have this coming for you, take it now.”
“I haven’t looked back since, ” said David, who also credited her two older sisters for being “instrumental” in her career success.
Now she is one of the sport’s biggest ambassadors and most recognizable faces.