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Madeline Perry: How I squashed my fears of life after sports stardom

Madeline Perry on how three months roughing it in the jungle in Borneo helped her come to terms with finally giving up international competition

By Stephanie Bell

Northern Ireland squash star Madeline Perry dreaded the void that she knew was looming when she retired from professional sport in April, so she came up with a pretty extreme way of filling it - spending three months in the jungle.

The 38-year-old from Banbridge stepped right out of her comfort zone to sleep in the wild in Borneo, in what was a new challenge with the charity Raleigh International.

Back home four weeks later, Madeline is still on a high from the wonder of her experience and is taking time to consider her options as she gets used to life without the full-on pressure of competing at international level.

Madeline has enjoyed a stellar career at the very top of her sport, achieving a world ranking of number three in 2010 - winning the Australian Open in the same year.

She has won the Irish National title a record 15 times and ended her career on a high in April when, in her very last match after a 17 year career in world squash, she walked away with her sixth Irish Open title in Dublin.

Although ready to retire in April, part of her also dreaded the changes it would bring to her lifestyle, so she opted to do something which would buy her time to come to terms with it by signing up for the Borneo trip.

Madeline went to Borneo in June as project manager responsible for a group of young volunteers aged between 17 and 24.

The team was very hands-on in helping with three projects designed to support the building of infrastructure to improve the management and sustainability of isolated villages and rainforests.

For Madeline, it was an experience which has more than helped her come to terms with the end of her international squash career and given her the time and space she needed to consider what she wants to do with her life now.

She is thrilled that she did it: "There are a lot of reasons why I wanted to do the trip, and part of it was coping with life after retirement. I knew it would keep me busy and give me something to focus on, while also doing something completely different, which is what I wanted.

"The first couple of weeks we were training - and that was the hardest part for me, because I hadn't used my brain in 17 years and I was learning all this new stuff, but gradually I got into it and got more and more comfortable.

"Everyone assumed that because of my sporting background that I was a real outdoorsy person and had done lots of trekking, but although I am physically fit, I never did any walking, that was very new for me.

"Being responsible for the younger venturers was amazing. I loved every minute and the three months just flew in. I was so happy the whole time, I never once thought: 'This is horrendous'."

As well as trekking for miles through wild jungle and helping with construction projects, the team turned in exhausted every night to bed, which was a hammock tied between trees with a tarpaulin as a roof and only a mosquito net for protection from the jungle critters.

As someone known to have a fear of spiders, Madeline says her friends were astonished when she broke the news that she was going to be sleeping in the open in what is home to some of the world's most fearsome spiders and wild life.

She says: "My friends were so shocked, because they know I am terrified of spiders. I was a bit afraid I would look stupid and be screaming and running around in circles, but there were people who were a lot worse than me.

"It is funny how you adapt, and we did see all sorts of funny looking insects."

The team spent the first three weeks working on an environmental project in what Madeline describes as "the Jurassic Park-like Imbak Canyon", where they helped build a suspension bridge which would connect secondary rainforest with primary rainforest.

The bridge would allow scientists to access and study the rainforest and help the area become a World Heritage site, giving it greater protection.

Madeline says: "I enjoyed the tough physical work here. As well as carrying construction materials, we also hand-mixed cement to fill one of the holes for the bridge foundations. We did this for three weeks, but every minute of it was fun and rewarding."

The second phase of the trip involved an 18-day jungle trek with 10 young venturers and three guides.

It proved a major challenge even for the physically fit Madeline, who said: "Many would think that trek would be a walk in the park for me due to my physical background, but I had never done any more than long walks and most certainly had not spent time sleeping in hammocks and making fires.

"It did, however, turn out to be a truly memorable time, using my toughness and positivity to really encourage the young venturers to achieve something many of them thought was beyond their capabilities.

"The trek was of immense value to the venturers in helping them gain, or in some cases regain, their self-confidence, their ability to work as a team and their mental and physical stamina. They overcame challenging conditions, sore feet, tired legs and a lot of bites and stings, even including an attack by some killer bees.

"It rained torrentially for 18 days on and off, but that only added to the fun and it really was one of best experiences of my life, especially hearing and seeing how utterly proud all of the venturers were of their achievement. I had never imagined such days of repetitive work and simple living would make everyone so happy."

For the third and final phase of their trip, the group worked on another environmental project in a place called Danum Valley, where again they helped to build another suspension bridge to give scientists access to primary rainforest.
“This time, we were digging a very large hole and carrying sand from the river ready for the next Raleigh group to start cementing,” says Madeline.

“It was slow and challenging work, but everyone knew exactly why we were doing it and the sight of so much interesting and unusual wildlife only encouraged the venturers to work even harder. It was also clear to us how the local community and rangers greatly appreciated the work that we were doing.”

The wildlife turned out to be one of the most surreal and special aspects of the experience, as the team were woken every morning to the sound of monkeys singing.

But for Madeline the biggest reward was being able to put the skills she had honed as a professional squash player — hard work, determination and positivity — to good use to inspire the young people in her team.

“I arrived in June with the skills I had as a squash player and hoped that somehow I could use them to inspire young people to believe in what they could achieve,” she says.

“Raleigh teaches people how to be open, how to relax, how to be tolerant, how to be genuinely happy, just by living a very basic life.

“The lack of technology and phone signal was extremely refreshing and certainly made me realise that it really does not need to be such a big part of my life.

“Fewer distractions created more time to genuinely talk and really get to know people, thus gaining a closeness not normally reached in such a short space of time.

“After so many years of competing and performing for myself, I was finally in a situation where I could help others to succeed and be happy within themselves. This brought me a great sense of fulfilment.

“I have achieved many successes over the years, but nothing quite gave me the same sense of pride that I felt leaving Borneo. I really hope I was able to have some impact, not only in Sabah but on the lives of the young venturers with whom I shared the jungle space.

“It really was an unbelievable experience, in a beautiful country. I was touched by the warmth of the Sabahan people, in particular our guides, who not only guided us through the jungle, but touched our hearts with their kindness and happiness.”

Madeline is now relaxing back home in Halifax, where she moved 15 years ago to pursue her career.

She started playing squash at her local swimming pool complex in Banbridge at the age of 11, which is relatively late for professionals, who usually start around the age of five or six.

She was also late entering her career, having studied geography at Queen’s University, Belfast, first and only opting to turn professional after she graduated because: “I didn’t really know what else to do”.

Madeline reached the top 30 in 2001, and won the first of her nine WSA World Tour titles in 2002 at the Proctor Memorial.

She went on to pick up major titles around the world, breaking into the World Top Ten just eight years after playing her first WSA event.

After that, she remained a regular fixture at the top end of the women’s game, reaching the quarter-finals of the World Open in 2009 and 2012, and winning the Australian Open the following year.

While it may not pay the phenomenal sums commanded by sports like golf and tennis, she has enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle but, more importantly for her, she thrived on the challenge. And while she started relatively late, she also retired much later than is normal for the sport, gaining her the unique title of being the oldest ever player in the top ten.

Facing the end of a career she loved was not easy and she is still considering her next move.

She says: “It was an unbelievable career and like all sports it was hard at times, there are a lot of ups and downs in sport.

“I love squash, I love travelling and I love meeting new people — there was nothing about it that I didn’t like.

“I was very lucky. I had been thinking about retiring for some time, because I wasn’t as motivated and it is hard after 17 years to keep that intensity up and I always wanted to do myself justice.

“I also had some niggling injuries, and while I knew I needed to retire it was still tough, as to me it was the perfect job.

“Since returning from Borneo, I have had a month to think about the reality of it all and what I am going to do now.

“I have a few ideas, but I don’t want to rush into anything and do something that won’t fulfil me.

“I am thinking of executive coaching and motivational training, using my skills such as planning and attention to detail.

“I really enjoyed working with the young people in Borneo, which is why I’m thinking about coaching.

“I’m still going to the gym twice a day, because I don’t know any other way and no doubt squash will be a big part of my life as I guess that’s what I do best, but I now feel ready to delve into the world with more confidence.”

Madeline adds: “The skills I gained as a professional squash player not only allowed me to be a good athlete, but also gave me the ability to motivate and support others. Borneo was such a good experience and I got what I wanted out of it. I demonstrated to myself that not only can I work successfully as an individual, but also as both leader and part of a team.

“It also makes you think a lot more about what makes you happy and I realise I want to be happy and not be stuck in a rut, in a job I don’t want to do.”

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