In the latest story from “The Show Court“, Alix Williams (check out her two-way podcast/interview with Gerry Gibson) looks at the longevity of Australia’s Rachael Grinham …
Three decades in, the elements that continue to surprise us when we watch Rachael Grinham play are what should surprise us the least. A sit down with squash’s Ironwoman is a master-class on longevity in sport.
After 30 years of professional sport, most athletes come face to face with moments of introspection— whether to continue to play or to fold their hand. Is this is it for me?
The list of athletes who compete professionally into their forties is short in any sport is short. The list of women in that group is unsurprisingly shorter.
Three decades of hard squash is not for the faint of heart, but it’s been a joyride for Rachael Grinham. Consistent in surprising us, her style of play is purposely unpredictable, and you can see she loves the chaos she creates on court.
She’s been so good for so long, it would be impossible to count how many hundreds of thousands of kilometres she’s traveled since she first won the Junior World Championship at 16. Although there’s been ranking highs, after talking with her, it feels like her whole career has been a high.
At 43, Rachael is still going strong, the rare athlete who is willing to risk losing, to keep winning. She works to keep her body in top physical shape to keep the up-and-comers at bay. She’s more than surviving – Rachael Grinham is still thriving
There’s nothing that could surprise Rachael on the squash court, not anymore, yet she continues to surprise us. From the squash education only her father could have given her, to the move Rachael watched propel the women’s game to where it is today, she’s seen it all.
But every athlete, professional or not, has their day. After so many victories, has the ironwoman of squash ever felt compelled to ask herself, is it time to hang up my racket?
The Early Years
Rachel’s early days of squash were nothing short of idyllic. Growing up in Toowoomba, Queensland, a city of just under 100,000 people with a warm climate that’s prone to rainfall, escape to the squash court was the leisure activity of choice. Her first home club was Willows Squash & Fitness Centre, named for the willow trees across the road. Rachael and her sister Natalie would hit around at the courts with kids from the neighbourhood, at first because their parents were squash regulars, but later, because the sisters liked it.
“It was the late seventies, early eighties, and we just spent hours at the courts. And then as soon as I could pick up a racket and hit it, I could spend five hours on a Saturday morning. We’d get home and then I’d be just begging to go back.”
The owner of Willows, Noel Ziebell, was enthusiastic that the girls were so keen on squash. He let them play for free as often as they liked. He helped fund their entry to junior tournaments and even gave them a kit to get them going, — and get going they did. “He’s probably by far the most important person I would need to thank for my career.”
The junior scene at the squash club was a mixed bag, which worked in Rachael’s favour. The range of ages means that she could put one of squash’s oldest rules to work– that, to improve, you need to play people better than you, the same level as you and worse than you.
“Everyone was kind of different ages, I don’t think anyone was my age, but we all played it together. We played this game, which you’d never see nowadays, where you’re literally just all on the court and you just start hitting the ball, and whoever loses it has to leave the court. But sometimes when you lost, instead of leaving the court, you would lie down at the tin.”
Squash death by firing squad, as only 12-year-olds can enjoy.
As much as she loved playing with the kids from the courts, her favourite time was her time on court with her father.
“He would play rallies and run you around, but he definitely had his way of teaching you a lesson while playing with you, without saying a word! On the court, he was also always being creative with angles and mixing up the pace and rhythm, so looking back, it seems obvious I mimicked his style of play, and he was the biggest impact on the style of game I play.”
It’s the perfect example of how the time parents spend with their kids on court, or anywhere, will have ripple effects felt down the road, no matter where it takes them. The early un-official lessons Rachael had with her father stuck with her as she moved into playing professionally.
“I have always liked to mix it up even when I was playing percentage squash, a lot of holding, have them guessing or play the non-textbook shot. I think we’ve always been told, myself and my sister, that no one knows what’s going on, what we’re going to do. We don’t really know what we’re going to do and it’s not textbook; it’s wrong basically,” she says with a laugh.
‘It’s only wrong if you’re not winning’
Rachael and her sister Natalie aren’t afraid of breaking traditional squash rules, and the stats don’t lie. Rachael reached the World No. 1 ranking in August 2004 and held on to it for 16 consecutive months, while Natalie reached No. 2 in the world in 2007.
“It’s not particularly right but it’s instinct. If you’ve got the movement to get onto the next ball quickly, to react quickly and then you can turn it into an advantage.”
Dozens of years, hundreds of matches later, if you watch her play with this in mind, you can see how deeply that natural style is ingrained. The elements that continue to surprise us when we watch Rachael play are what should surprise us the least.
While the squash Rachael grew up playing is what she does best, throughout her career, she’s worked to adapt.
“When I started playing, it was a lot more conservative. Traditional scoring, the tin changed, it became a lot more attacking. As soon as the points scoring system changed, the game changed dramatically.”
Mental strength comes in many forms. Rachael doesn’t spend time visualizing or meditating before she steps foot on court, but her cerebral power comes from being able to switch up her strategy and approach year by year, match by match.
“We all have different games, strengths, and weaknesses. I used to be able to go on court, and I could have a Plan B, just stay in the game long enough to win it. But I can’t do that anymore, I’m 43 years old. I can’t be having long rallies, I have to take opportunities as soon as they come or try to make the opportunities before they’re there.”
New Kids on the Block
Her competition gets younger every year, but Rachael isn’t dismayed by it, not for a minute. Women’s squash has exploded in terms of depth of talent; a rise Rachael credits the merge of the PSA with the WISPA. The forward momentum for equality in prize money, global training opportunities for women and the increased fan-based and viewership has helped professional women’s squash flourish.
“It seems we had the merge with PSA, and it’s just taken off.”
There are murmurs about Rachael capturing a spot on the Australian team for the 2022 Commonwealth Games.
“If none of the Australians can beat me, they don’t really deserve to be going away an Australian team either. Make them beat me!”
She finishes with her signature good-natured laugh…
All athletes have an expiration date, but when I did a little digging, the lists of athletes over 40 in any sport were predominantly men². Rachael isn’t just defying squash’s expectations, she’s defying everyones.
When asked about retirement plans, there was no beating around the bush— retirement not in Rachael’s immediate future. Or any future, at this point. There’s too much good squash still to be played.
“I don’t think I’ve ever really come close to like seriously considering retiring.”
And why should she? Currently sitting in the 27 spot, she’s comfortable competing and beating players half her age.
Rachael has reached the point in her career where she can be picky about tournaments she plays. She travels to play when the tournaments are held in cities where she can visit friends, or where she knows she’ll feel like she’s at a second home. She loves going back to the Texas Open, where in 2019, she took out top seed and World No. 6 Sarah-Jane Perry. No matter what age seems to dictate, it’s still just a number.
When I asked her if there was anyone who motivated her to keep playing, it was her turn to make me laugh.
“Who would be motivating a 43 year to keep going? I’m actually just still playing because I love playing. And I feel that for 43 year old, I’m still doing really well, and I enjoy the challenge.”