It’s pushing towards midnight and James Willstrop is awaiting details of the fixtures for the following days’ matches. It’s far from usual to have to wait up this late at a competition, but James remains implacable. His good spirits are understandable, after all he’s the Commonwealth Champion. A Commonwealth Champion in the process of deconstructing the nature of success.
James is just about the only athlete I’ve ever come across who is prepared to fully open up in the middle of a competition (many struggle to open up at all). We are in the process of making a film together, commissioned by England Squash, of his life and career for which he’s (perhaps unwittingly) agreed to record a video diary during the Games. I am delighted, surprised and not a little guilty to discover how seriously he’s taking it,
“After winning I sat in the dining room at 0100 am on my own and thought ‘now would be a good time to record a piece’, but the phone just kept going constantly with messages of congratulations and support”.
I feel myself squirming, the guilt levels increasing as he continues,
“The media response has been interesting too. Now I’m ‘wanted’! It’s not always the case with squash. There is a pleasure that comes from all that interest but it does make you wonder what winning is all about. The next day I managed to find some quiet space on a grassy bank and sat and did it then”.
It doesn’t make anyone love you any more. You’ve got to be a good person for that. Winning’s not the be all and end all.
“So what do you think winning actually means?”
“I’m not entirely sure. There’s the medal and the attention but then I got to reflecting about my mum a bit*. My brother’s here with me, coaching. My manager’s here. I think maybe it’s about the reactions of others, knowing you’ve touched people. After all, there’s so many people involved in this win, in their own ways. My dad Malcolm, my Physio, the people back home in my club at Pontefract. And the fact that there’s so many more seeing this makes it more special. If you can move someone, perhaps that’s what it’s all about”. He pauses, “It doesn’t make anyone love you any more. You’ve got to be a good person for that. Winning’s not the be all and end all.”
“Perhaps it’s it a case of winning doesn’t define who you are but it does affirm what you do?”.
“Yeah, I guess it’s the validation of what you strove towards. It’s not about who you are as a person but what you do as a person. I think back to all the times I turned up to Pontefract and played and trained rubbish. Often I felt I didn’t know what I was doing. Then I’d sit down with Malcolm; discuss it, work through it and push on. We’ve done that hundreds of times over the years. And he’s been there ever day. When this happens you know you’ve achieved something together”.
He’s achieved a lot in a playing career that has seen him enjoy numerous titles and plaudits, including World Number One status. However, this is his first individual gold at a Commonwealth Games – arguably the biggest platform for a squash player given the sports’ ongoing and confusing omission from the Olympics. Squash, despite being played around the globe, does not attract the type of media interest or finances that sports like tennis enjoy. The net result of this is a group of elite athletes who are unusually self-sufficient, humble and approachable.
The trappings and glamour of a major multi-sport event come as a shock to someone used to hauling their own gear, booking their own hotels and wandering unfamiliar streets late at night trying to find something that resembles a healthy meal. As James explains,
“The athletes village is like a bubble. It’s quite strange. You wouldn’t have to spend any money here if you didn’t want to. There’s a HQ that sorts everything you need including spare kit. There’s a laundry, a food hall. Apart from a small pub, mainly for coaches, where you can buy a drink, everything’s free: you can even get your haircut”.
If you can inspire a kid to pick up a racket and play that’s really what it’s all about.
Participating in the Commonwealth Games does bring additional advantages that are more enjoyable for James: a new audience,
“The Aussies just love their sport and the crowds are incredible. People are watching because it’s the Commonwealth Games, not because it’s Squash. Touring around the world you’re usually playing to Squash fans. Here you’re playing to crowds who don’t know the game. It’s a great opportunity to introduce people to the Squash. If you can inspire a kid to pick up a racket and play that’s really what it’s all about. It happened to me when I was a boy, watching the British Open at Wembley. I remember it sparking me up”.
For anyone that didn’t see it, James pulled of a masterclass of the sport, ultimately dispatching Kiwi Paul ‘Superman’ Coll. In three straight games. I don’t know a lot about squash but it was evident that James was on top of his game and it was the sort of performance that even had me stretching for a racket.
I chip in, “Imagine, even now, a youngster in some far-flung corner of the Commonwealth has embarked on a journey to squash stardom, inspired by your gold medal win”.
James laughs, “How good is that?! Inspiring the next generation of kids. If I’m doing that, I’m happy”.
He pauses, again deflecting the focus from himself,
“I’ve needed so much help along way. We’ve all worked so hard together. That’s why I gave Mick, my Manager, such a huge hug at the end – for all his work and hare brained schemes for sponsor deals. David, my brother – all those Wednesdays feeding me balls”. I interject,
“It’s like an extended team?”. James, shakes his head,
“People have their own lives. They’re not my team. They help so much and they’re so selfless. They give a lot to me. They help me pursue my goals. That’s incredibly humbling”.
A noise in the background announces the arrival of the coaches with the following days’ schedule. Our time is over, for now. Listening to James’ reflections I feel humbled myself. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to those video diaries.
*James’ mum, Lesley, died of Ovarian cancer in 2000
This is part of a series
This article is from the Performance Life channel.