When it comes to World class athletes, New Zealand is blessed with more than its fair share. But what sets our athletes apart from other global sporting heroes is their accessibility, their down-to-earth ‘Kiwiness’ and their ability to stay grounded and ‘real’.
Squash superstar Joelle King epitomises this Kiwi attitude. She is world class talent all the way, yet when she returns home to Waikato, she morphs from driven squash star to local hero, helping encourage and coach kids of all ages into the sport which has made her such a success.
New Zealand’s number one women’s squash player since 2010, she also has three Commonwealth medals under her belt; gold and silver from Delhi and bronze at the more recent Glasgow Commonwealth Games.
Cambridge-born and bred, Joelle and husband Ryan Shutte continue to base themselves here, despite the fact Joelle’s commitment to her sport sees her travel and compete internationally for eight months of the year.
Having battled her way into the top echelons of the sport (World ranking No.4), there’s little wealth or glamour to accompany the achievement – unlike many other sports.
Because squash isn’t an Olympic sport or a target sport for high performance, official funding is minimal, and Joelle is hugely grateful for the support of her sponsors, who help make it possible to pursue her passion.
And there’s no doubt that despite almost a decade of competing at top level, her passion for the sport remains.
However, the last 12 months have been something of a roller coaster ride, and perhaps her most challenging time yet. Just weeks after winning a bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games; her carefully laid plans and highest world ranking yet (No4) came to an abrupt crashing halt. A ruptured Achilles tendon during the finals of the National Championships in Auckland put paid to Joelle’s immediate sporting future.
Being out of the sport for the last six months is the longest break she has taken since becoming a full-time athlete at the age of 19. It also means dropping seven spots in her world ranking to No 11. (Any athlete out of the sport for six months or more automatically drops seven places).
When Joelle returns to the competitive arena, she will play six competitions at that ranking and results will dictate where she moves to from there.
Now with the bulk of her recovery behind her, Joelle admits she sees the break from squash as a good thing.
“I never would have taken a step back voluntarily, there’s a constant drive to stay at the top of your game, keep improving, keep moving forward,” she says.
“Being immobilised, then on crutches and a moon boot forced me to rethink all my plans. But it has also given me the opportunity to work on other aspects of my game – strength and fitness.”
“If anything, it has refuelled the fire. As weird as it sounds, because I haven’t been playing, it has reinforced my dertermination. I’ve been watching a lot of games and players and picking up plenty of tips, so can’t wait to get back into competitive action.”
Joelle swapped court time for a return to her earlier days of swim training, adding in gym workouts and even rowing (with one leg to start with, until her other leg was strong enough to use).
Rehab has involved working with her long-time fitness trainer Jason Wheadon at SWEAT in Hamilton.
“It’s been interesting for us, as most of my training used to revolve around using my legs. However, because I couldn’t do any leg-based exercises for a while, some new ideas and different machines (like the erg which I officially despise) became part of my new routine.
Immediately following her injury, Joelle says a ‘tough love’ talk from her husband changed her negative mindset.
“Everything had really come together for me at Glasgow. I had a very clear plan of where I was going from there, so to get injured two weeks later was pretty devastating.
“I was lying on my hospital bed feeling pretty disheartened, but Ryan gave it to me straight and told me to just ‘get over it’, and deal with it. It could be the making of me. And he was right.
“I had two choices. To take his advice, get over it and do everything possible to come back, or to wallow in my self pity. So I chose the first option.
“It was exactly what I needed to hear and that night I just accepted what had happened and since then have done everthing in my power to make sure I’m going to come back better than ever.”
Joelle’s medical team is thrilled with her recovery. There is minimal scar tissue and she is almost ready for the squash court and some hitting practice, before getting into it properly in March, when she hopes to start competing. Her desire to win burns as strongly as ever.
“There was also part of me which enjoyed having some time to be normal. Since we were married I’ve been away competing a lot, so it’s been special for us to have this time together. I also got to hang out with friends and as my husband is usually at his work functions alone I’ve been able to go along with him.
“I’ve enjoyed spending that time with friends and family – but having this forced stand down has confirmed that I am not ready to give it away just yet.”
Joelle is eyeing up some New Zealand tournaments as a lead in to her first major goal, the British Open in May.
Her ability to focus on the future and back herself is a key component to her success. That and her willingness to stay committed to her goals, despite setbacks.
“I think the way I started in the sport was the making of me. I left New Zealand as a 19-year-old, with no money, just a credit card and travelled all the way to Montreal to base myself with my coach. I did not win a single match that whole year. I had no money and I slept on floors in people’s hotel rooms.
“It would have been easier to give up, but something inside me drove me to go back for more. I decided that the sooner I could get up there and improve, the sooner I could stop sleeping on someone’s floor.”
With one of her two brothers a professional rugby player, Joelle has also seen the other side of being a professional athlete, the side where everything is put in place to help you on that path to success.
“It’s great that other sports and players get these opportunities. But it does add an extra element of difficulty when you have to fend for yourself, book your own flights, find accommodation, try to pick what tournaments you are going to play and how you can afford to get there. That was the first few years for me.
“It was tough but definitely has a lot to do with my character today. I was not going to lie down and let it beat me.”
That attitude has helped her turn what could have been the worst six months of her squash career into a positive.
It is also what enabled her to recover so well by obeying medical advice to the letter but also continuing to work her body as much as she could within set parameters.
“I was standing up on my crutches three days after getting home and walking the dog. I only did five minutes, but at least I was off the couch.”
“I’ve had a lot of fun spending time with kids at schools and clubs, letting them try on my medals and encouraging them to have a go at squash.
“If I can inspire just one kid to play squash and hopefully more than that, then it’s worth it.
Time spent with Squash Waikato and Sport Waikato, helping promote the sport at all levels has been enormously rewarding.
“Usually I get to just play squash. But there are a whole lot of people behind the scenes who make things work for the sport and it’s been really cool to work with them and have time to travel to the smaller clubs and hopefully motivate people to have a go.
“Once again taking the step back has made me realise just how much I love the sport and want to encourage more people to get involved.”
How did you spend this summer?
This is the first time since I can remember that I have been able to really enjoy the whole NZ summer. This is usually my busiest time, spend in the Northern Hemisphere winter. It has been amazing. I mostly spent it around home with family but with lots of day trips to the beach and lakes and plenty of barbecues.
What are your plans for the next few months?
I am still very much in a rehab phase. I have just begun running and hitting squash balls while I continue to strengthen and retrain my body. Its been a long process but with lots of improvements all the time it has kept me very positive and excited to get back to playing full-time.
What was the best part about some time off court?
I guess just feeling like a normal person for a bit being able to attend birthdays, weddings, hanging out with friends and not being away from home all the time.
What have you missed most?
Playing squash. The feeling I get when I play, even when I’m exhausted. It’s the rush and excitement from doing what I love that I have missed more than anything.
What have been the crucial elements to your recovery?
Having a really great team around me – coaches, trainers, physios etc. Also adapting to the situation. And of course, my support network, such as family and friends has played a massive part.
What are your short and long-term goals?
Short-term – to play a full game of squash. Long-term – to travel and compete full-time again and reach number one in the World. That’s what I work hard for every day.