New chapter sees Harrogate squash champion James Willstrop mixing with the stars
If there’s one pursuit you might have expected to be a non-starter during Covid, it’s the claustrophobic close-quarters combat of squash.
Not so, says Harrogate’s former world champion James Willstrop, who at the age of 37 remains one of the most respected players on the international circuit.
At an age well past retirement for players of his calibre, he is currently preparing to compete in major tournaments starting in Egypt next month, fingers crossed.
Living at home in Harrogate during lockdown with his partner Vanessa - a former world champion squash player herself - and their two children Logan and Bram, James admits it hasn’t always been easy but he has certainly not been short of things to do.
James said: “Considering it all, having our children here with us has been an ultimate blessing when so many people must have been so very lonely and isolated this past year
“Our two little boys have been keeping us busy. We are lucky to have had this time with them.”
Squash players have been allowed to train on the courts in the last two lockdowns, which has been a godsend to James.
He said: “During the first lockdown we couldn’t do anything so we had to be inventive with home workouts and training outside on the bike.
“Vanessa’s Dad, Jim, is an engineer and has built an incredible gym in our backyard. I’m in awe of what he’s done. To have a space like that in the home to train in, we’ve been so lucky.”
At 6 feet 3 inches, James has an unusually large build for a squash player.
Off the court - away from the intimate intensity of duelling with his rivals - he is also a bit unusual in having a rival passion - writing. Lockdown has given England’s most capped senior player the space and time to complete his new book.
Published by Pitch Publishing, Heroes and Icons... and What Drives Them to Succeed draws on his own sporting heroes and inspirations from other walks of life.
His interviewees, all conducted before the first lockdown, include Jessica Ennis-Hill, Chris Hoy, Steve Redgrave, Katherine Grainger, Alistair Brownlee and more.
The end result is a cracking read but the process of putting the book together turned into something of a journey of self-discovery for the writer.
James said: “I was really touched that all these famous figures gave me so much of their time.
They all tended to say common things about there being no short cut to success and having to always go the extra mile to get where they got.
“I started to see my own experiences in what they were saying. I spotted myself in them, not just the incredibly long hours of practice but the obsessive, compulsive nature of top athletes.
“Jessica Ennis-Hill was totally paranoid about getting a cold before tournaments.
“I remember once when I was in a cafe at a World Championships and the waiter was full of the cold. I got up and walked straight out.”
Throughout his career Willstrop has done what it took both physically and mentally, to reach the highest levels - often to unnecessary and damaging physical lengths.
He also shows some of the same commmitment in his non-squash life; he recently completed a master’s degree in creative writing at Leeds University.
But nothing is likely to capture his heart like squash, a love affair which began as a toddler when he loved throwing squash balls around with his father, before progressing to watching top players in tournaments aged just eight.
Having won the British Championships last year, a few weeks before the nation went into lockdown, James is looking forward to getting back onto a 32ft long and 21ft wide court in earnest, smashing a small ball at speeds of up to 170mph in a sweatband.
Logically, his days at the top are near their end.
A most thoughtful and intelligent of champions, as a veteran Willstrop is conducting a tricky balancing that few in his sport have achieved before.
James said: “Top squash players usually retire between the ages of 30 to 33.
“I look after my body now more than I did as a 20-year-old or even a 30-year-old. Physio and sports science has also improved a lot. But I no longer really push for the number one spot. To do that would kill my body.
“As a youngster, it was the exciting atmosphere of competing and the social aspect of playing squash that I liked.
“One of the worst thing about lockdown is that kids haven’t been allowed to meet up and play squash together.
“It’s not about winning for me anymore, it’s about the feeling. I still love playing; I’m enjoying it more then ever.
“Over the years I’ve come to realise that defining yourself by titles and medals isn’t who you are.”
He has both, of course, but when retirement does come, he will also have a new career ready and waiting.
Heroes book meant to entertain and inspire
New book ‘Heroes and Icons... and What Drives Them to Succeed’ presents interviews by Harrogate-based squash legend James Willstrop as informal and entertaining conversations between himself and interviewees such as Katherine Grainger, Stefan Edberg, Stuart Pearce, Julian Barnes, Denise Gough, Alison Rose, Simon Stephens and Alastair Brownlee.
Among all the sporting heroes and cultural figures he spoke to, the latter appeared to be least affected by reaching the highest level of his profession.
James said: “I found most successful people have a lot in common when it comes to being successful but occasionally certain people do things differently.
“I was amazed by Olympic-winning triathlete Alastair Brownlee who likes to keep things simple with no fancy training schedules or techniques.
“He still trains with the same people in Leeds as he always has and still enjoys the social aspect.
“That’s unusal with top level athletes.”
Willstrop’s enlightening new 352-page book may be a forensic study of what it means and what it takes to be a winner but he believes it has lessons for us all.
He said: “I hope people can see something in an interview which they can use in their own lives.
“If someone comes and tells me that, it will have been worth writing.”