Retired Squash Queen Nicol David Turns Her Attention to Nurturing New Talents

So what’s it like in the day of Datuk Nicol Ann David nowadays, I ask. One would think that the record-breaking World No 1 squash champion would miss playing competitively, as she’s done professionally for nearly 20 years of her life but she dismisses the idea with an empathetic shake of her head.

“I’m so happy I’m not competing anymore. I know what it takes, not just playing it but the training that goes into it. I did like the travelling… but I can travel now without my rackets and actually visit places. I’ve been to some cities but I hardly got to visit the museums and see some cool sights but now I can!” she says with a little laugh.

A feeling of contentment seems to emanate from her. “I feel freer now,” she says conspiratorially. “The very first time I woke up in the morning after I retired, I felt free. I wasn’t like stuck in a place where I had to do my training because that was all I did for so long.”

ABOVE Tiffany & Co earrings, bracelets, rings, choker necklace from Tiffany Knot Collection; Bottega Veneta outfit

Her decision to retire from the sport was an emotional time for her to come to grips with, describing it akin to a “break-up”. At the tail-end of her career, it became really clear to her that she had done all she could with squash and it was time to figure out her next move, which is giving back to the community. And so the Nicol David Organisation is born.

“I was very fortunate that I have the right people—my family, friends, my coach and my team; they were all supportive of my decision to make that next move. They saw that I needed to do something else for myself now and it’s the right time. And the more I started discussing my organisation with Mariana and the people around me, the more I realised that I had other experiences from squash that I can tap on to do new things and create an impact. With my platform I can do that in so many ways. Letting go of squash allowed me to open my mind and heart to other things, where I can give back to society, to women, and to share the knowledge that I gained from my squash career,” says David.

ABOVE Tiffany & Co earrings, bracelet, ring from Tiffany Knot Collection; Prada outfit

She was back in Malaysia to finalise the paperwork for the organisation, which she built and co-founded with Mariana de Reyes. David speaks warmly of her business partner, “Mariana has been a big force in the planning and everything. She used to be a squash player from Colombia and has worked in the corporate world for 10 to 11 years. We’ve been friends for a long time and when I was training in Colombia, I started to share with her that this is what I wanted to do and I said, ‘can you quit your job and come join me?’ And she said, ‘okay, why not?’ It has been a lot of work in terms of planning and preparation but man, it is so gratifying to know that we can do something for these kids in a small way.”

Indeed, after hearing their ambitious yet well-laid plans for the organisation, I can’t help but be excited for what’s in store. They plan to name the programme Little Legends, which aims to nurture and empower girls and boys from B40 and M40 families around the three core values of positivity, confidence and respect through the power of sports and education. The children are also taught valuable life skills with workshops that are built around self-awareness, healthy habits and creativity for a holistic outlook. In order to open opportunities for these kids, they’re keen to boost their proficiency in English and are even looking into incorporating technical knowledge like programming later on.”This is definitely something we want to highlight: that two strong women had a visionary approach to what really matters to be successful and had the determination to break through all barriers and break records”— Nicol David

“Maybe this is going to change their life so we’re willing to find partners [to work with] so these children can have a different future,” shares de Reyes as she shows me the presentation deck.

Believing in long-term impact, the programme is for five years, taking in a batch of 50 children aged 8 to 9 per year. David explains, “We want to see them through their primary years. We know that a child’s development is not a one-time programme that will be over in two weeks. It’s a state of progression where we guide them along the way and nurture values learnt from sport like discipline, humility and self-confidence which will last a lifetime for them.”

And it doesn’t end there. They’re willing to raise funds to bring the kids to the UK or the US so they can gain international exposure and get to speak English and play squash. Says de Reyes, “We’re thinking of doing this in their fifth year because by this time maybe their proficiency in English is pretty good. And when they’re about to graduate, then they give back—they become Little Legend mentors. So they become the leaders of the little ones, like Big Brother or Big Sister.”

Seeing how sports has positively influenced her behaviour and approach towards life, David herself will be running the programme as head coach, wanting to inculcate that quality in her young protégés. Her excitement is palpable: “It will be fun to oversee the programme because I know we have so much talent. Even though they may just be kids that want to enjoy sport, learn more English and have a holistic approach to development, our vision is to help these kids gain experience and exposure, while giving them the opportunity to dream big and achieve their goals.”

Located in Bukit Jalil Sports Centre, they plan to have their official launch in the second quarter of 2022, with a subsidised fee for 20 hours of after-school co-curricular activities each month. Even parents are not left out of the equation, with activities developed for them as well. As de Reyes bluntly says, “Parents are fundamental to the children’s development but no one ever helps them.”

There’ll be talks for parents like nutrition as well as financial workshops to increase their knowledge, or even have fun activities like going to the movies together. “It seems very simple but some of the B40 families don’t do this often. Parents also need a break, want to have fun and make new friends so we include them in the experience.”

ABOVE Tiffany & Co. Tiffany Knot Collection jewellery; Bottega Veneta outfit

With a Nicol David biopic in the works, we are about to see how a young female athlete from a relatively small country like Malaysia is lent wings to take on the world, and shows the behind-the-scene struggles of what it takes to be become great. The movie also underscores the importance of more female participation in sports and the need for more female coaches in the professional coaching environment, especially in squash.