In Australia, when one thinks of the greatest female athlete, names like Cathy Freeman, Sally Pearson, Sam Kerr and Elysse Perry, come to mind. Their stories of battling it out against the worlds best in their respective sports is well-documented and covered globally. Their aspirations and challenges to reach the pedestal that they are placed on are talked about by fans and casual sports viewers alike.
However, arguably, Australia’s greatest athletes amongst both men and women, to ever play a sport, is the former professional squash player, Heather McKay. And she is undoubtedly Australia’s greatest female athlete.
Outside of squash circles, Heather McKay is not that well known, even within Australia itself.
While Australian icon, Geoff Hunt, was beating every Pakistani, who faced him in the finals of the British Open (until Jahangir Khan), Heather McKay won a remarkable, 16-straight British Opens.
To get a sense of her skills and ability, think of a tennis player winning 16 consecutive Grand Slams. Yes, that was Heather McKay.
Her father, an avid sportsman and baker, inspired and influenced her, a chain-smoker from Queanbeyan in New South Wales, Australia, to invest her time in sports.
It was the legendary Hashim Khan, who first stated to the Canberra Press while touring Australia, that Heather McKay was very much on her way to becoming a good squash player. This is something she never forgot, eventually playing an exhibition game with Khan in his senior years
However, her first choice was not the game of squash, rather she played tennis and field hockey until she eventually found squash to build her fitness, and then became the Australian champion, 12 months later, and dominated the world circuit for years to come.
To add to this, she was also a member of the Australian women’s hockey team during her squash career and won several racquetball tournaments, while taking up tennis again in her older age and winning world veterans tennis championships.
She won her first British Open in 1962, defeating British player, Fran Marshall, who she went onto beat in the finals of 1963 and 1964. Interestingly, Marshall was only of two players, and the last one, to have beaten McKay in a professional game (with the other one being her loss to Yvonne West in 1960).
Richard Eaton referred to her as “very strong-minded, making her focused, ruthless, and consistent. It made her conspicuously self-possessed too, creating a formidable on-court presence.”
She made up for what she lacked in size, with intense physical prowess and rapid speed that often overwhelmed her opponents. What was even more incredible, perhaps, was the fact that there were no sports development programmes for athletes, how they exist today, during her time.
Upon being asked about these programmes by Pat Dobrez for the Bulletin, in 2001, Heather McKay responded ‘there was none of that: physiology, psychology, nutrition: no. I always say, and laugh about it: for fifteen, sixteen years, I had steak and salad before I played. Four or five hours before I played … So, no: we had very little help.’
After her 16th British Open win against Barbara Wall in 1977, she never competed in the British Open again. However, in 1979, she returned to win her second World Championship and retired from the game soon after that.
Over the course of her career and long after it, accolades followed.
Believe it or not, in 1967 she became the 4th woman to receive the ABC Sportsman of the year award (ironic, yes).
She also received various awards and recognitions, such as the MBE, Order of Australia, AO, and was honoured as an inductee in the Squash Hall of Fame and even the USA Racquetball Hall of Fame.
Her influence on growing the sport has been enormous, and she dedicated a lifetime of working with famous players and organisations to make sure that squash became bigger, better and for what it was worth, appealing to new and old audiences.
Alas, she may have succeeded on the court and set in stone the future of squash’s growing popularity, but today, she is not celebrated in Australia or even in most of the squash world, the same way that other athletes are.
A tragedy or perhaps a lack of appreciation, whichever it may be. At 79, Heather McKay is, without a doubt, the greatest female athlete from Australia, to play a sport, and arguably its greatest athlete ever.