Sarah Cardwell on life, legacy and squash

Sarah Cardwell, the Australian squash pro, catches up with Sportageous to talk about her career, family legacy and the pandemic.

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Sarah Cardwell with the trophy
Sarah Cardwell wins a trophy (Source: Supplied)

Zushan Hashmi: Australia has had several top athletes who have dominated the game over the last few decades, however, as of late, the game doesn’t quite capture the attention of the masses or come to the fore of the media. Has something gone wrong?

Sarah Cardwell: This is an extremely complex question that I go round and round with when it’s discussed with pros, family, promoters and general enthusiasts. As for not capturing the attention of the masses, I must have very biased eyes because I constantly catch myself having these geeky little “wow, this is just the best” thoughts when watching elite squash on TV.

I don’t believe the ball is hard to track on TV thanks to advances in technology, I think the scoring is simple, the game is fast but simultaneously gruelling, it can be played in some of the most spectacular locations, it’s played globally, you can advertise on the walls/ tins/ outside the court.

I have constantly (probably sillily) held onto the hope that once the masses viewed it properly (i.e. at the Olympics), it would gain the exposure it’s long deserved and people would flock to it. In terms of our standing globally, I think people often neglect the rise of other countries when considering our position. There are more players and more countries competing than ever before. In some countries, squash is a popular sport and therefore they will have more numbers, which breeds competition.

I can’t speak to grassroots programs as I need to read more about ours (and it’s been a while since I experienced grassroots programs personally) but I think pathways and the transition from juniors to seniors are extremely important. You’ll notice many of our players in recent times have come from ‘squash families’ rather than a school program or grassroots initiative.

Coming from a squash family, I was more aware of my options for a professional career and had my mum to help guide me, whereas, I presume, without family and associated connections, players wouldn’t know where to go or what to do if they weren’t the top player in juniors to be picked by the Australian Insitute of Sport and shown the way. The jump into seniors is daunting and I think younger players need other benchmarks and pathways to follow.

Geographically it’s also difficult, our high potential players can’t have more frequent state and national training like some countries do (which would be less of a problem if we had an abundance of junior players around the country able to train together where they reside), and aren’t able to travel to compete with other countries as easily from a young age.

The solution of course would be to have a huge number of juniors competing, pushing each other so that eventually you get a few players ready to compete internationally in juniors and ready to move into seniors because they’ve been exposed to constant competition at a local level long before it gets to the point of moving into seniors. The not so easy part is how we get a huge number of kids playing squash.

Read: Donna Lobban on playing squash at the optimal level

You turned pro at a very young age, and have been playing ever since, what has the experience been like, and how has squash in Australia changed since you first started?

I may have covered a bit of this question in my first answer but my introduction to juniors and seniors was somewhat smooth because it was played in my family and I was able to continue whether or not programs were in place to help me advance. I’m fortunate that my mum and dad not only played, but knowing it was your mums’ job (and she was bloody good at her job) gives you a belief that it’s a realistic career path. Our ‘turned pro’ dates are listed from when you signed up and played a PSA event, so I wouldn’t quite claim I was playing professionally back then but yes it was basically from juniors straight into seniors! The tour identity itself has changed, I played under WISPA, then WSA, and now PSA. The scoring changed early on when I started, then the tin height, then doubles width and tin height changed… lots of changes! While that may sound like a lot of guinea pig experimenting, I think players adapted really well with each change. As technology advances and sport science improves, things of course get faster, rackets get lighter and recovery gets quicker. I think the tour is constantly getting better because as more people see it as a profession, the stronger the competition gets. 

Your mother, Vicki Cardwell, was the world number 1, and has been your coach, what was it like being a part of this squash ‘lineage’? And of course, having mum to coach you?

It’s probably what you imagine it would be like as a kid or as a parent- brilliant and complex and convenient and comforting and frustrating and every other contradicting feeling! In all seriousness, it’s probably only tough at times during the teen years or depending on the kid’s development (It definitely would’ve been hardest for my mum when I was a teenager- sorry mum). I get advice from both parents and I think it’s easier as you get older or when you are able to be clear in your roles at the time (not mixing coaching time with parenting time and vice versa). 

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Sarah Cardwell plays squash in Australia
Sarah Cardwell (R) on the PSA Challenger Tour (Source: Supplied)

Leaving comparisons out of it, has there ever been any sense of pressure, especially externally, to live up to the name, we spoke to Carla Khan not too long ago who talked about expectations or the there lack of being from the Khan squash dynasty, what has your experience been like in this sense?

I’ve always said the only pressure I’ve felt has been from myself. The first time I was even aware of any comparisons or expectations was when a national junior squad coach wanted to give me a pep talk before my first match at a junior tournament we travelled to in New Zealand.

I honestly didn’t understand what the coach was asking me about feeling and I guess that shows my parents did a decent job. My mum always just said “have fun, if you win it’s a bonus”. She would cheer for ‘good squash’ up till I was about 17 and she always told me I’d won things she’d never won (because she hadn’t started squash till her late teens, haha). I don’t know if it was natural or if they had a method, but I’d say their aim was for me to love the sport and just be healthy and happy.

I’d say trying to fix things yourself or hoping things improve without addressing them properly is the main thing to avoid when facing serious challenges.

Aside from that, are there any other challenges you have faced playing the game? Can you tell me a little bit about them?

Yeah, I’ve had challenges like anyone has, and I usually keep them to myself until I implode but I’m trying to get better so I will say that I’ve had a few health problems over the years, both physical and mental, and last year through this year have probably been my biggest hurdles so far (or maybe they just feel that way because it’s the most recent). Injuries have all been relatively minor (touch wood), so personal issues have been more challenging than injuries for me.  

Read: Squash Down Under needs a drastic overhaul

And how were you able to overcome these challenges?

I’d like to think I did/ have/ will. Trusting doctors, accepting help, and speaking to people you feel comfortable with is probably the route I have taken/ should’ve taken/ will take [laughs]. I’d say trying to fix things yourself or hoping things improve without addressing them properly is the main thing to avoid when facing serious challenges.

Who are some of the current and former athletes you look up to and why?

I’m sure I’m forgetting an athlete I actually do idolise but I think as you get older, you don’t really have idols or you just admire specific traits in different people, because people can’t measure up to the perfection we idolise when we’re kids. Of course, there’s Federer for his class and demeanour and every sport has admirable athletes, but these days I probably look up to family members and people I know.

Sarah Cardwell - Degree
Sarah Cardwell with her degree (Source: Supplied)

And what would you say has been the highlight of your career and why?

So far, my highlights would revolve around team events. While we train and compete as individuals, I love representing my country and walking out with the Australian team at the Commonwealth Games (2014 and 2018) was just electric. Especially the Gold Coast Games being in our home country and my doubles partner being one of my closest friends since childhood, it was particularly special.

Read: Australia’s greatest female athlete: Heather Mckay

You recently returned from Germany to Australia, what’s the story there?

Well! I came home from North America mid-tour when tournaments were getting cancelled and borders were shutting (14 days home quarantine as I arrived 2 days before hotel quarantine was initiated). My home city is Melbourne, the city that endured the longest and strictest lockdown in the world. I went through a few phases of home training programs without squash, each time hoping at the end of the months would be squash courts opening or an exemption to train properly, with no such luck.

It was getting harder and harder watching the rest of the world being able to train, travel and compete, including watching other athletes and sports teams leave Melbourne and get set up the interstate. So, while I couldn’t get exemptions for training in Melbourne or anywhere else in Australia (or even be able to go more beyond 5km from my house to get my favourite burrito), I applied to the Federal Government for an exemption to travel internationally during the travel ban.

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My application was successful, I booked my painfully expensive flight and competed (on my birthday!) for the first time in 7 months (at a platinum event, against the world number 17). It would’ve been a tough task to be competitive even if I had a good training block behind me, so with that many months of no squash, it’s no surprise I didn’t win that match! [laughs].

So, once you leave the country, you can return to any state (not so important now but at the time, it meant being able to return to a state I could train in while being covid safe). Hotel quarantine duration and fees encouraged me to stay overseas to continue training as safely as possible (it was quite stressful going from such a strict environment to countries with far less serious approaches to the pandemic, but I was willing to do it because my wellbeing was rapidly deteriorating).

I looked up which countries were handling the pandemic better than others, what their restrictions were and if there were players I knew from the area. The options were Germany, England (at the time) and Wales. To get into the UK you couldn’t arrive from Egypt within 14 days, so I went to Germany, trained with my friend Ineta Mackevica (from Latvia) for longer than originally planned, then Wales and England went into lockdown so I couldn’t go there, and I couldn’t expect my friend to have me on her couch forever (and she was then looking at going back to her home country), so I started the hunt for flights back to Australia! In case any Aussies are overseas still waiting on repatriation flights:

It’s an upheaval, but check every airline flight schedule, which flight numbers are being cancelled, which routes are allowing Australian citizens to transit through (as well as allowing transit for the countries you’ve been in), and of course, it will be more expensive than it every usually would be, but you can find an option for roughly the same cost as the repatriation flights.

The normal search engines will still give you options for countries we can’t transit through, and not take into consideration frequent route cancellations or travel ban destinations, which is why we hear about economy tickets costing over $15,000. Then I completed my 14-day hotel quarantine in Brisbane (easier than Melbourne lockdown, worse than home quarantine), and stayed here with Rachael Grinham and Jenny Duncalf afterwards (until Christmas).

I saw my family for Christmas and unfortunately, Melbourne was still struggling to get back to normal (in and out of restrictions and lockdowns), so I recognised that Brisbane/ Gold Coast would be the best place for me to get my game back on track. I packed up and have been in Brisbane all year, commuting to Gold Coast twice a week to work with Stewart Boswell. 

PSA World Tour
Sarah Cardwell against Hollie Naughton (Source: Supplied)

With the tour back on, what’s next on your squash calendar, and what has it been like to return to the professional game?

For my next tournament, it may just be a Challenger5 event but I am over the moon to travel to New Zealand to play my first professional tournament in what feels like forever.

I was in a very different place to go to the Egyptian Open, then the couple of local events I’ve played here have been great to get the competitive buzz going, but now I feel like I’m finally getting good training under my belt and feel more prepared each day. ‘Barfoot & Thompson Auckland Open’ will be live-streamed on the Sky Sports NEXT YouTube channel (finals will be live on Sky Sport in NZ) from May 27-30.

I have met some of my favourite people in the world through this sport and I’m sure when I’m looking back on my career, I will think more about the experiences I had travelling and sharing with lifelong friends than about wins and losses.

What targets have you set for yourself and expect to achieve/work towards in the future?

In the immediate future, I’m having to try my best to ignore my ranking while I’m unable to travel to any 15, 20, Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum events, and focus on improving my game and getting some doubles practice in ahead of next year’s Commonwealth Games.

What do you say to young women wanting to pick up squash in Australia, and why do you believe they should give it a go?

I would absolutely encourage young women in Australia to pick up squash. It forces you to understand and practice discipline, problem-solving and dedication (which are valuable in all areas of life), and you don’t have to play professionally to experience the positive impacts it can have on your life. I have met some of my favourite people in the world through this sport and I’m sure when I’m looking back on my career, I will think more about the experiences I had travelling and sharing with lifelong friends than about wins and losses.

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