“Mission completed!” With these two words, a NASA spokesperson brought to an end one of the agency's longest running and most impressive space exploration programmes, which achieved more than anybody could ever have imagined. In 2003, NASA had launched rockets to visit Mars, and on arrival two vehicles laden with scientific instruments (known as Mars Exploration Rovers), executed a successful landing on the Red Planet and started traversing and recording the Martian soil and geology.
The Rovers, known respectively as Spirit and Opportunity, were only designed for a three-month mission. However they proved so successful at moving and gathering data that the NASA engineers kept extending their goals and the working lifetimes of the two plucky explorers. In 2007 the mission was almost abandoned as swirling dust storms cut communications, but on resumption Spirit and Opportunity both continued to cross valleys and hills and transmit important data about their locations. Now, sixteen years after the vehicles were first launched, NASA has confirmed they are no longer in contact with either Spirit or Opportunity.
The world of science has celebrated the contribution of the two pioneers in advancing our knowledge. Likewise, the world of sport has learned that is it is time to bid farewell to one of their legendary and beloved figures, who has had a stellar career of unparalleled achievement that also sets records for longevity. Nicol David, one of the best squash players of all time has announced that 2019 will mark her final season as a professional player.
“After more than 20 years playing squash for Malaysia, competing on the professional tour and achieving the absolute best from my career - being the only Malaysian athlete to achieve these accolades and to be recognised as the greatest female squash athlete of all time by my peers - I can proudly say that I am ready and happy to announce my retirement at the end of this season.”
A basketful of maiden championship titles
In many ways, the sporting career of David mirrors the progress made by the two Martian explorers; for one thing, the time-frame of their careers are similar. In 2005, whilst Spirit and Opportunity were checking out their new home and starting their journeys of success, the Malaysian athlete amassed a basketful of maiden championship titles, as she claimed the gold medals at the World Championships, British Open and The World Games.
Over the years, the name of Nicol David would frequently appear on the honours boards of all three Championships. To date she has been World Champion eight times, (including an amazing streak between 2005 and 2012 where her only World Championship defeat in that period was a surprising second round loss in 2007), and holder of the British Open title on five occasions.
After her initial success at The World Games in Duisburg, Germany where she overwhelmed Rachel Grinham in straight sets, David represented Malaysia at the quadrennial sporting event a further three times, medalling at each edition. In 2009, she felt at home as The World Games travelled to Asia, with the Chinese Taipei city of Kaohsiung taking on hosting responsibilities. The only difference to the outcome of four years previously was that Rachel’s sister Natalie Grinham was the one left clutching the silver medal. Long-term rival, Grinham could not cope with David's power and speed when the two clashed again in the 2013 final, played in Cali, Colombia. Three finals at The World Games, and three times the Malaysian national anthem had been played. As the 2017 edition approached, the question was whether David would strike gold for the fourth time. Sadly for her, Hong Kong teenager Joey Chan twice came from behind in their epic semi-final to inflict the Malaysian's only defeat at the multi-sport event. Nicol David did however claim the bronze medal to seal her place in history as a legend of The World Games.
New coach – big turning point
Like Spirit and Opportunity, David also recovered from a potential early setback. As a precocious 14-year-old, she had won gold for Malaysia at the Asian Games. Four years later she was left devastated after failing to retain her crown. She knew that she needed to change her game, in order to achieve her potential. David moved to The Netherlands and linked up with coach Liz Irving.
The Australian's communication skills allied with David's dedication to training and learning provided the basis for a formidable and successful partnership. Speaking just before the 2018 Commonwealth Games, David said “It was the turning point of my squash career.” She told GC2018.com “I moved over to Amsterdam to train with Liz and if I didn’t do that, I would have stopped squash before [now]. A coach relationship like this has never been tried before and great success that has come from it. It’s not really known in any other sport either. She’s an inspiration to me and a true mentor who has just guided me along the way.”
The Malaysian superstar has also claimed some longevity records. A good squash player needs the speed of a sprinter to get across to low returns, but also as games in the small enclosed glass courts last around an hour, also needs the endurance and breathing patterns of distance athletes. David has both in good measure; her nickname “The Duracell Bunny” shows that just like the Mars Rovers, she just keeps on going and going. She was ranked World Number One for an incredible 108 consecutive months. Her dominance of her sport, together with her unfailing sportsmanship and charitable work (David is the United Nation Development Programme Ambassador for Malaysia, and is planning in retirement to use her own foundation to help young Malaysian girls progress with their studies and sporting interests) has inevitably drawn comparisons with Roger Federer.
Speaking of her sportsmanship, Andrew Shelley, CEO of the World Squash Federation said, “Running the Women’s Tour during so many years of her success, like everybody else I saw her wonderful athleticism so well-honed by Liz Irving, her drive to succeed, but also her humility. Her opponents have always been respected, those who have helped or simply supported her received sincere thanks, never a hint of diva, dealing with defeat, …. and always that smile.More than this, she would always give of herself. ‘No’ was such a hard word for her. From the Women’s Tour perspective, the burden of interviews was accepted with good grace. More than that, from 2002 onwards, Nicol would always say yes to the onerous WISPA Promotional Tours and latterly the WSF Ambassadors Programme.”
Both Squash and Racquetball at The World Games 2021
Fans of fast-paced racket games will have mixed emotions at the next edition of The World Games in Birmingham, Alabama in 2021. They will no longer be able to experience the beaming smile of the illustrious Malaysian flag bearer at the spectacular Opening Ceremony, nor witness the exploits of a legendary sports woman. However they will be able to enjoy not one but two high-class sporting competitions. Squash is again on the programme and following yet another Olympics rebuff, a place on the podium is guaranteed to be the highest level of achievement thatany squash player can attain in a multi-sport games.
Having missed out on the Wroclaw 2017 edition, making a welcome return to the roster of The World Games is Racquetball, a sport popular across the Americas. Rules that allow the ball to be hit low, or to travel via the ceiling, give players the option of making a greater range of shots. Nicol David may not be competing in Birmingham, but Magic City could yet be enthralled by another potential legendary sportswoman bearing a racket. Last year the 18-year-old Guatemalan Ana Gabriel Martinez claimed her first world title, beating the three-time world champion Paola Longoria from Mexico. The Guatemalan is a seven-time junior world champion and is clearly destined for greatness. In 2033 will we be writing about the Central American Racquetball star who is the four-time medallist at The World Games?
Farewell then to one of the best athletes that sport and The World Games has ever seen. It is appropriate that the final words should again take their inspiration from the Mars Exploration Rovers. The two vehicles acquired their names after NASA ran an essay competition for schoolchildren. It was won by Sofi Collis, a third grade Russian/American school girl. Sofi wrote “I used to live in an orphanage; it was dark and cold and lonely. At night I looked up at the sparkly sky and felt better. I dreamed I could fly there. In America, I can make all my dreams come true. Thank you for the Spirit and the Opportunity.”
Nicol David is The World Games Athlete of February 2019. Congratulations, and thank you for the spirit in which you have conducted yourself and represented your sport and your country, and for the opportunity of being part of your amazing achievements!
Nicol David will receive The World Games Athlete of the Month diploma as well as a branded gift from the Official Sponsor of Athlete of the Month, Protective Life.
Brian Salmon for The World Games
The World Games is a multi-sport event staged every four years by the International World Games Association under the patronage of the International Olympic Committee. The 11th edition of The World Games will be held in Birmingham, Alabama, USA, 15-25 July 2021. 3,600 athletes from over 30 sports and 100 countries will take part in the Games.