Joelle learns to jeté in UK isolation

Joelle King's decision to stay in England during lockdown has allowed the squash star to refresh, reconnect with her roots and discover the power of dance.

Holed up in her apartment in the English city of Bristol, Joelle King is learning ballet for the first time.

The Kiwi squash No.1 is doing dance training online in lockdown, now in her ninth week on her own indoors.

Ballet was never contemplated by the tomboy Joelle as she grew up in Cambridge; she was happier trading NBA basketball cards with her brothers. But in these unusual times, she needed something new to keep her inspired.

The 31-year-old hasn’t picked up a squash racquet since she last played in Egypt in mid-March. There's nowhere to play - England’s sports clubs and gyms are still closed, and life is nowhere near back to normal.  

With no idea when the World Tour may start up again, the former world No.3 and triple Commonwealth Games gold medallist decided the only goal she would set during isolation was to keep fit and reset her mind and body.

Still waking up at 6am, King starts her day with online pilates and ballet classes.

“It’s so not me; I would never have dreamed of doing ballet. I’m not very graceful,” King laughs. “But I wanted to do something different that would stimulate my brain.

“It turns out ballet is so relevant to squash – the powerful movements and balance. In squash you have to hold your own weight when you’re in certain positions while you’re moving fast.

“The number of times I’ve heard people who come to squash for the first time say: ‘It looks like you’re dancing’. To be honest, ballet makes squash look easy.”

Even dancing brings out King’s competitive side: “Before I know it, I’ve done three or four classes in a row." 

King, a two-time doubles world champion, has been based in Bristol since 2017, when she decided to work closer with her new coach, Hadrian Stiff.

She thought seriously about returning home before New Zealand went into lockdown. But she decided she felt comfortable where she was, and had the support of Stiff and her other coach, Laura Massaro – the UK’s former world No.1 and King’s former rival.

“At the start [of lockdown] I don’t think we really understood what we were in for. I returned from playing in Egypt and three or four days later, it all kicked in,” King says.

Joelle King made the Tournament of Champions semis in January, here beating Julianne Courtice of England in round 2. Photo: PSA. 

She talked with two other Kiwis on the PSA World Tour – Paul Coll and Campbell Grayson – and Squash New Zealand as the news came through that New Zealand was closing its borders.

“We agreed the best option was to do what we were most comfortable with. And I decided it was best to stay on this side of the world,” she says.

King considered it again with New Zealand coming out of lockdown, and squash starting up here in Level 2. (A men’s tournament, the Unsquashable Premier League, began in Auckland last weekend - with 32,000 viewers online).

“I thought ‘Should I go home so I can train on a squash court?’ But there are talks about professional squash returning before the end of the year - with strict distancing and hygiene rules, and no crowds. Just to get things going," she says.

“And if I got stranded in New Zealand, I might not be able to come back to England for a while. I’m not playing squash right now, but talking to Laura and her husband, who’s a sports psychologist, I know that’s okay. If I don’t hit balls, it isn’t going to affect me, because I’m mentally okay with that.

“And I’m actually enjoying this time so much.”

It turns out the timing of this global shutdown could not have come at a better time in King’s career. She admits the past year has been “a real struggle”.

“I had a lot of personal things going on, but now I’ve come out the other side of that,” she says.

The difficult year reflected in her form, slipping to ninth in the world when the squash rankings were frozen in April – although she’d had a strong start to 2020, making the semifinals at three US tournaments.

But she felt tired, she says, and hadn’t taken the time for a mental breather. “Between tournaments, you make little quick fixes to make you feel more confident in your game. You spend so much of your career chasing tournaments around the world and training,” she says.

“So being in isolation has helped me have the time to really go through it. I’ve learned quite a bit about myself and I feel like I’m so much clearer and really happy.”

As for her future plans on the court, King has the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham on her radar. They will be her fourth Games. 

"Somewhere in my mind, I want to play the Commonwealth Games, I made that clear after the last ones," she says (at the 2018 Gold Coast Gamese she won two goals and a bronze). "But really I’m not thinking too far ahead."

Joelle King on her way to beating Salma Hany of Egypt in the quarterfinals of the Tournament of Champions in January. Photo: PSA 

King, who’s of Ngāti Porou descent, has keep in constant contact with home – her mum, Toots, has been trying to teach her online how to cook a carrot cake, but twice she’s failed – and she has a regular Saturday quiz with friends. She’s broadened her horizons with technology to reconnect with New Zealand’s squash community.

“I did an online chat with Squash Waikato which made me realise I can be more involved with squash back at home,” she says.

And she’s hosted a Zoom training session with the New Zealand high performance squad, the next generation of squash stars.

“Paul, Campbell and I are all aware kids look up to us. Growing up I had a poster of [former world No.1] Leilani Joyce on my wall, and when I first met her, I realised she was really normal. But she worked really hard, and it made me realise I could do that too,” King says.

“One of the kids asked ‘what would be your one piece of advice for someone wanting to go professional?’ When I was starting out, my coach [Glen Wilson] moved overseas to Montreal and I was able to move in with him and his family.

“It’s about making connections with people who can help you make that transition by giving their support. It’s important to have good people around you. Glen and his wife and children were like family to me. And now these kids know now I’m accessible too.”

Talking to other top squash players during lockdown, King has discovered some younger players are struggling with the sudden halt to the game.

King recognises her experience - especially her impressive comeback in 2015 from a serious Achilles injury - has prepared her for this. “When you’ve had a major injury, you always learn something. And it’s made this time feel so less daunting,” she says.

“When you’re older, you know how your body works and how you can train it best. Once I know I have a tournament, in October say, I can switch back on and have something to train for. Some of the younger players are in this development phase, which is important, so they feel they’re missing out on something.

“This has freshened me up. I’m not rushing from training session to training session, and the body is enjoying it.”

It’s not all laid back and relaxing. There’s the ballet, of course, and twice a week, King goes through a punishing online training session with Massaro, who lives in Manchester.

She’s turned the lounge of her apartment into her workout space with dumb bells and bands. When the English were allowed a one-hour outing a day for exercise (a restriction that’s just been relaxed), King would go out running or pedalling the new road bike she bought for lockdown (“I’m never going to make it onto the New Zealand road cycling team - I get way too distracted!”).

But her greatest achievement, she says, has been learning to turn any negative into a positive.

“For a lot of people, this is not an easy time. A healthy reminder for me is below where I live, there are homeless people who sleep under a bridge,” she says.

“I can’t play squash at the moment, but there are people out there who are losing their jobs, losing family members or are homeless. I know how really fortunate I am.”

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