Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

Squash star Madeleine Perry courting more success

Madeline Perry is ranked world number 11 and wants to keep improving

Madeline Perry is one of Northern Ireland's most successful sporting stars on a global stage, but the odds are you won't know too much about this excellent ambassador for our wee country.

You'll probably be aware that she is a fine squash player and perhaps recall a few years ago how Madeline suffered a horrific head injury.

Apart from that, though, unless you are from her home town of Banbridge or working at Sport NI, which helps the 36-year-old with funding, details are likely to be sketchy.

That's a pity because Perry, based in Halifax in England, has enjoyed a superb career.

In the last month she won the Irish Open and Texas Open and tonight starts her campaign in the prestigious British Open, squash's second biggest tournament behind the World Open.

Ranked number 11 in the world at present, but expected to go higher on the back of those recent successes, Perry was at one stage the THIRD best female player on the planet.

Just how many of our homegrown sporting heroes in their respective fields over the past 20 years can lay claim to that? Not many is the answer.

As a child Madeline participated in every sport possible from football and tennis to swimming and hockey, but squash became her number one choice when she joined a "good club with good players" in Banbridge.

Having played at junior level for Ireland, Madeline decided to turn pro in 1998 after completing a geography degree at Queen's University.

"It was only supposed to be for 12 months to see how I could do," she says.

All these years later Madeline is still going strong and is one of the most respected competitors in the physically demanding sport, having won multiple competitions on the women's tour.

What she has achieved since 2008 is a tribute to her remarkable mental strength because that year in Milan, Madeline was attacked, knocked unconscious and could have died as a result of what was a vicious mugging.

The County Down woman laughs now when recalling that just a fortnight after the assault, which left her in an Italian hospital, she wanted to be back on court again playing in a big tournament!

"My coach who used to live in Halifax lives in Italy now and I was over there visiting him," recalled Madeline.

"I was outside a restaurant and I don't know what happened really because I have no memory of it.

"It appears I was knocked over the head. I woke up in hospital with a broken temporal bone, which is bleeding on the brain basically.

"I think there was a danger of dying, and people have done with that condition, but luckily I had a very small bleed so it didn't put any pressure on the brain. Apparently when that happens you are in trouble.

"I was in hospital in Italy and when I got out I wasn't allowed to fly because I had some sort of bubble of air close to the brain.

"So my mum, who had come over from Northern Ireland, and I got the train and then boat back to Belfast. It was a long journey home."

You may think Perry's demeanour and tone of voice would change as she tells the story given that it was such a harrowing experience. They don't.

Clearly this is a lady who takes just about everything in her stride, though she does admit to feeling powerful emotions at the time.

It wasn't that she felt sorry for herself, depressed or down in the dumps. Or even sense of injustice because the attacker was never caught. The feelings were more of fury due to the impact the assault and its ramifications would have on her career.

"I had the World Championships two weeks after the incident and I was hoping to play until I was told that would not be possible," she says.

"As soon as it happened it was all about getting back to where I was before. I was more angry than anything else because I was at the top of my career and this stopped me in my tracks for a while.

"I just wanted to get on with things but what happened meant that I was tired a lot and my concentration was rubbish for ages.

"When I did get back on court months later it took me a long time to feel right on court, I'd say it was maybe a year .

"That was when I reached the semi-finals of the World Open which was a pretty big achievement."

In many ways Madeline has not looked back since.

A year ago she was concerned about her results wondering if decline was about to set in but her form of late suggests there is plenty of life left in Perry yet.

And on not getting the recognition here she most definitely deserves?

"Of course it would be lovely to get more credit, but you don't have a right to that credit. All I want really is to keep improving and keep enjoying my game," she says.

'Getting our sport to the Olympics is key to future'

Squash would benefit greatly if it were to become an Olympic sport, according to Northern Ireland's Madeline Perry.

Like all those involved in squash, who have recruited high profile tennis heroes Roger Federer, Andre Agassi, Stefan Edberg and Kim Clijsters to promote their case, the Ulster woman is doing her utmost to try and persuade the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to give it the nod for the 2020 Games, even though by then she will have retired.

Perry, (36), had hoped that her sport would be included in the Rio 2016 Olympics, but golf and rugby sevens were chosen instead.

This month the IOC are expected to announce the shortlisted three sports in with a chance of gaining entry to the greatest show on Earth in seven years time.

Those three sports will then present their case in September with the IOC voting for their favoured option.

Perry says: "If successful it would give us a platform to showcase our sport.

"The Olympics is the biggest event in sport and it gets so much publicity you would hope that more people would want to play squash on the back of it knowing they had the chance of Olympic medals.

"Also countries like China and America would really get into it which would be great for the growth of our sport around the world and tour sponsors would be more interested in becoming involved.

"In my view squash should be in there.

"It's a high participation sport, it has all the physical and mental aspects of top level sport and we have successful men's and women's tours around the world, but obviously the decision is up to the IOC."

The latest stage of the women's tour sees the top players compete in the British Open this week.

It is taking part in Hull City's stadium because the owner of the football club is sponsoring the squash tournament.

Perry, who has an elder brother and two younger sisters, reached the final of the British Open in 2009 and would love to do so again, supported by her mother and father who while still living in Banbridge travel to cheer on their daughter when she competes in the UK, Ireland and Europe.

"Mum and dad are proud of what I've achieved, but they don't get carried away. That's the way it is in our family – no one gets too excited," says Perry.

No doubt in the British Open, Madeline will aim to make her experience count.

"I'm old for a squash player. No one can quite believe how good I am for my age and that I'm still improving," she says, with a smile on her face.

"Usually 30 to 32 is the peak for a female squash player. There are quite a lot of years of learning in our sport.

"It gives you a chance to use your brain and past experiences enabling you to move your opponent around, which means you have a better chance of winning a game."