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Steps to a champion

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Leilani JoyceFollowing the drama of the women's individual World Open final in Stuttgart one important fact from the tournament may have been overlooked - New Zealand's Leilani Joyce was only beaten by one player in both the individual and team event and that player was World No.1 Michelle Martin. Joyce isn't making any claims herself, she is taking, in her own words, 'small steps' and now there are very few players to step past. To keep things in proportion, Joyce was beaten well enough in the end but she won a game (won it as opposed to Martin losing it, which is often the case when opponents take a game off the World No.1), took the game to Martin and, most of all, wasn't afraid of the pace - she thrived on it. She can run hard, hit hard and do it all at speed, and that is one of the attributes that distinguishes the champion from the good player. With Martin out of the sport, Fitz-Gerald still coming back from injury, and Campion beaten in the British Open final, Joyce could the next world champion. 

 That speculation is an unhelpfully big step for Joyce to comment on. "Every player here," she says of the girls in Stuttgart, "would like to be World No.1." She won't say what her next goal is to be but perhaps it will be to reach No.3 in the world and then consolidate herself there. This will be a problem for England's Cassie Jackman and Sue Wright and now a fierce challenge can be expected between these three and perhaps South Africa's Natalie Grainger.

Joyce learnt to set sporting goals as a young girl brought up in a sporting family in Hamilton, New Zealand. She was the second youngest of four girls who ran, played rugby, tennis and basketball. At 10 years old Leilani was introduced to squash at the local YMCA by her rugby-playing father. "We were encouraged to play sport but not to win all the time," she says of her sporting upbringing. At 12 years old she started playing tournaments and setting goals. "My father had the philosophy not to play events until I could win them and we set the goal of winning all the junior titles," she says.

This Joyce did. She became U13 National Champion, started playing senior squash and reached the top senior grade, A Grade, when she was 15. Obviously she had talent but that came with a drawback. "Everyone says you are a natural but they have no idea of the training I did. We would go out each night and practise. I loved training and learning shots," she says. Joyce was in the New Zealand team which came fourth behind Germany in the World Junior Championships in Hamilton. She was the youngest member of the team and says she felt it. "I was a little weed,"she says. "It was initiation day every day."

On leaving school Joyce worked in a gym and played her squash around that. A year later, at 18 years old, she moved to New Zealand's largest city Auckland to concentrate on squash, based herself at the North Shore club and moved in with her future husband. Joyce started playing in Australia, Asia and England and after two years joined the NZ High Performance Programe when it was set up. Playing overseas was a big step, overwhelming at first. "It was daunting being in the same environment as players I'd only heard about and read about. We went overseas by ourselves and did it the hard way. No one went with us. It was sink or swim."

Joyce was an athletic competitor but the impression she gave was of being a bit rushed, a bit overawed, trying too hard, being too loose, tactically naive perhaps, not confident enough to reach her potential. "It was hard initially but when I became more confident in myself and met friends I started to improve," she says. Joyce was a good player but there was no hint of the resolve to go further. Now she is a top ten player challenging the best in the world. What made the difference?

"The biggest thing that made the difference is that my only brother died in January 1997. It hit home then that nothing lasts forever and that things come to an end sooner or later. Really it is a matter of making the most of what you have right now." "It kicked home that, if I was going to make something of myself, now was the time to do it. It wasn't going to go on forever. I was also able to tell myself that I really did love playing squash, loved the training, loved the travel and lifestyle on the circuit and that I was playing for myself and not everyone else."

At the end of 1997 Joyce was ranked 13. She had moved to 12 in the rankings quite quickly but had a bad run over two months, plummeted to 17 and it took her a year to get back to 13. Then she re-established her goals. Last May she set the goal of getting into the top 10 and promptly made that. For the world championship trip it was to get into the top 6 and she made that one too. "Every goal I have set this year I have achieved apart from bringing home a gold medal." "I set these goals myself for myself. They are small stepping stones. I have often let myself down in the past by reaching too high and falling way short of those goals and then getting demoralised by it. Now I am more content to take the small steps and not be in too much of a rush."

The next goal is Leilani's private business. It is all to easy for others looking for the next Michelle Martin or Susan Devoy, to speculate and talk up players' chances. She would rather not have that pressure. "I don't want to say I'm going to be No.1. I don't need to justify myself. If I know I have worked hard and put everything into it and I get to No.3 in the World, well good on me."

New Zealand is very proud of her successful sportsmen but there is almost a little bit of ownership of them from every person in the country and this can lead to unwelcome pressure of expectations. But this is not something that worries Joyce. "The pressure I feel is the pressure I put on myself. I welcome the challenges but I want to have fun and enjoy myself as well." Another attitude that some New Zealanders have is that Maoris are talented natural athletes but in the end will not have the discipline or drive to make it in international sport. It is an attitude that Leilani must live with but that she dislikes. "It hurts," she says. "It's tough to get to the top whatever nationality you are. It's a shallow view. I'd be lying if I said those attitudes didn't affect me but I'm not going to let them stop me. I can do this." "I'm glad to be out there and be a role model for Maori people and for New Zealand - to be a Kiwi. I'm proud."

New Zealand is home. Leilani does not want to be based overseas and, now that the tournament scene has moved from the UK, it is not necessary. She likes to travel but likes to get home more. If she is away for more than four weeks at a time she gets homesick. At present she is training at the Remuera club in Auckland, the 'busy, busy' city. She likes the outdoor life, loves to camp, swim, cycle and to rollerblade around the bays of Auckland's beautiful shoreline. Sometimes she snow-skis although she knows it is risky for a squash player. She enjoys simple pleasures, spending time at home with friends watching videos, but loves to 'boogie'.

"I like my food and I like a laugh. I never deprive myself of something if I want it," she says and admits to a sweet tooth, with chocolate a favourite. The girls on the circuit think she gets away with murder but she works it off, she says. Her diet is nothing fancy, just basics - mashed potato, peanut butter, Weatabix and chips. Supporting her have been her husband, her squash trainer Julie Hawkes, her yoga teacher and her family and friends, who are there not just in the good times but in the low times as well. "Yoga is good for you mentally, good for flexibility," she says and adds that she has not had any injures for a year. Sometimes she does volunteer work for the NZ Squash Association. "I have been helping to promote squash in NZ. I love the sport. I have got so much out of it and, if there is a way I can put something back into it by working with NZ Squash, I will. I enjoy doing it." Joyce is so enthusiastic for her sponsors and so grateful. "Why sponsor me when you can sponsor a top player?" she asked Unsquashable. "Unsquashable put time, money, equipment into me when they could have chosen any of the top ten players; but they have confidence in me, in my goals and my dreams."

Unsquashable sponsor her for rackets and Reebok for shoes. Other sponsors include NZ Beef and Lamb and the NZ Sports Foundation. The Sports Foundation send her letters congratulating her on her achievements. "It is so neat; there are so many athletes that come under their umbrella and it so nice and thoughtful to get a letter."

Leilani is proud of what she has achieved so far but slowly as her confidence continues to develop, as her goals are simply set and ticked off, there are few players left to step past and more people who will be watching.

January 2000

Ian McKenzie looks at New Zealand's rising star ...

the Smiling Assassin ...



British Open 1999 champion



Leilani and Sarah Fitz-Gerald in Aberdeen