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Athlete, Legend, Leader – Nicol David

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January 18, 2017
by Brad Burke

January 18, 2017 – New York, NY.  Nicol David, the longest-reigning world no. 1 ever in the history of squash, received the ToC Women’s Leadership Award at a luncheon attended by more than 300 guests at the Yale Club. Later in the evening, the Malaysian superstar played a quarterfinal match in the J.P. Morgan Tournament of Champions on the glass court in Grand Central Terminal against the current world no.1, Nour El Sherbini.

Few athletes have reigned at the very top of the world rankings in their sports for as long as Nicol David. She is the recipient of a Datukship, akin to a British knighthood, in her home state of Penang. The King of Malaysia has awarded her the rarely conferred Order of Merit. The August 11, 2016 edition of the British newspaper “The Telegraph” named her one of the 20 greatest athletes in the world right now.  She has more than 900,000 followers on Facebook. When she is home in Malaysia, she is mobbed on the streets.  In short, Nicol David is an extraordinary athlete, a celebrity, a legend.

For most people, that hyphenated identity would be all they could handle. The self-focus required to accomplish all that Nicol has doesn’t lend itself easily to also being a leader.  Nonetheless, the petite 5’4” squash star, who is way stronger than she looks, has – by her example, her actions and giving back – assumed a mantle of leadership that has inspired and empowered others.

The legend of Nicole starts on the island of Penang in Malaysia, part of a multicultural family in a multicultural country. Her mother is Chinese; her Indian/Eurasian father, who represented Penang in field hockey and athletics, was a recreational squash player.  The Malaysian superstar was a multi-sport athlete in her school days whose foot speed distinguished her junior squash career.

In August 2006, Nicol ascended to the top of the rankings and stayed there for a total of 9 years and 4 months. Although she played more matches every year, by far, than anyone else on the tour, Nicol made the time to be an ambassador for the sport. She traveled to countries around the world on behalf of the WSF, was a very visible presence in the 2020 Olympic bid and made herself available at every tournament for press interviews.

Nicol has never taken her success for granted, and she has used it to assist others. Each year when she comes to NY for the ToC, she spends an afternoon at StreetSquash. She is the Co-Chair of their newly formed Squash Professional Advisory Board; a Sport for Good Ambassador for the Laureus Foundation; and a UNDP National Goodwill Ambassador.

Despite the demands on her time, Nicol has never lost focus on continuing to improve her squash. “The #1 position is not yours to keep,” she has said many times. “And there are still many things I can improve.”  When Nicol began her pro squash career, her technique was sorely lacking. With coach Liz Irving’s guidance, she broke down and remade every part of her game. One of Nicol’s main rivals, Laura Massaro, says, “More than anything, with Nicol I think it comes down to will and a determination to succeed and the drive to keep going every day.”

Nicol’s greatest impact may be felt by her fellow Malaysians as expressed by Keeshaanan Sundaresan on fourthofficial.com, “For a country that’s constantly embroiled in a subconscious battle between excellence and mediocrity, your legacy will be a constant reminder of what every Malaysian is capable of accomplishing, if they are brave enough to pursue their dreams relentlessly.”

Upon receiving the award, Nicol said, ”It is a huge honor to presented the ToC Women’s Leadership Award. This is the first time that I am receiving an award outside of Malaysia, which makes this extra special.  To be a Malaysian receiving this award here in the US is definitely an achievement. I really appreciate that the squash community in the US has recognized my accomplishments and I am proud to have contributed in some way in this country. I appreciate everyone for seeing my leadership for women in sport through squash, within the US and hopefully the rest of the world.”