Madeline Perry adjusting to the reality of life after squash
Once the third-ranked women’s player in the world, now she faces a whole new challenge
Madeline Perry: “You’re winning titles, people are telling you you’re great, and then all of a sudden you become a nobody. You lose your identity in a way.” Photo: Stanley Chou/Getty Images
She was under no illusions about just how difficult retirement would be; you don’t walk away from a 16-year career as a professional sportswoman without ever throwing a glance back. You don’t effortlessly find a new calling.
It has, though, been even more of a wrench than Madeline Perry had anticipated. The combination of missing a life she relished for almost two decades and trying to find something to replace it with, that will both pay the bills and be fulfilling, is a challenge like no other she has experienced.
“Some days I’m fine, other days not so much,” she says.
“It does get you down that that life is all over now. That you can’t go back. It’s literally like starting a new life again.”
It was back in April that the Banbridge woman played her final tournament on the professional squash circuit, signing off by winning the Irish Open.
The following month she completed her international career by helping Ireland take bronze at the European Team Championships in Denmark.
Three monthsA fortnight lying on a beach in a sun-drenched location might have seemed like the obvious way to recuperate after an emotionally draining few weeks.
However, Perry being Perry, she opted instead to spend three months as a volunteer in the jungles of Borneo with the sustainable development charity Raleigh International.
Weeks of carrying construction materials and hand-mixing cement for the building of a suspension bridge between two rain forests, of trekking through the jungle in torrential rain, of digging holes and lugging sand from a river for another bridge-building project, aching feet, assorted stings, and then trying to get some sleep in a hammock tied between trees while the mosquitos attempted to snuggle in and join you.
Hell on earth?
“No, extremely fulfilling!”
She loved every aspect of the experience, felt enriched after visiting such a beautiful country and spending time with its people, savoured being a project manager looking after a group of young volunteers, the sense of accomplishment when tasks were completed, and the getting away from it all.
“I feel like I’ve definitely changed a bit - for the better,” she laughs.
“It was seeing such a simple life, you realise you really don’t need that much to be happy. No phones, no computers, none of that, and I didn’t miss them at all, I was getting everything I needed. The lack of distractions gave you more time to talk, to get to know each other, and in such a short space of time we developed a real closeness.”
Young volunteers“And after so many years of competing just for myself, having to focus only on me, I finally had a chance to work with and help others. Seeing the young volunteers respond to the encouragement and feel so proud of their achievements was hugely fulfilling. It was just an amazing experience.
“As I wrote on a blog afterwards, nothing in my life gave me the same sense of pride that I felt leaving Borneo, not even any of the successes I enjoyed through my career.”
Another benefit of her time in Borneo was that it took her mind off retirement; it was only when she returned home to her Yorkshire base that she had to confront that void in her life.
“I just didn’t have time to think about it when I was there, but when I got back it was all about life-planning.
“I spent weeks and weeks making notes about what I’d like to do, some days I’ll feel I’m not really getting anywhere, worrying about having nothing set up, other days I’ll be more positive thinking about the future. I’m up and down.
More difficult than you feared it would be?
“I think the fact that I haven’t got something to move on to yet has made it hard.
“I definitely think I made the right decision, when I watch tournaments and results I don’t think, ‘ah, I wish I was there’. The time was right. I just miss the lifestyle, a lot of the girls on the Tour were my friends, so I miss them.
“We spent so much time together, travelling, tournaments, so it does get you down that that’s all over now. That you can’t go back to it.”
“Relatively speaking, you’re so young when you finish a career in sport.
“I’m just 38 and have to start again. I’ve done a lot of reading on that, a lot of professional sports people get very depressed after they retire, even footballers with millions in the bank. It’s so difficult to come to terms with the fact that the perfect life you had couldn’t last forever.”
“And it does give you an ego as well when you’re a player, if I’m being honest. You’ve got your world ranking, And you lose that regimented lifestyle?
“That’s the funny thing, it’s almost like I’ve been trying to recreate that, that’s why I’ve ended up going to the gym still – and I’m there asking myself ‘why am I doing this?’
“But it’s been hard to break out of that routine, I’m still playing club squash so I’ve been training loads, I’m addicted to it really. But I’m getting back in to my old routine a bit, which I was trying to break away from. I have to start moving away from that and start a new life.”
She never planned on going in to coaching but, for now, she feels it’s a route she will have to take until other openings arise.
“I would love to work with young people, the experience in Borneo was inspirational on that front, I’d like to do motivational work with people in business, things like that. But it’s not going to happen immediately, so for now I’m looking for opportunities with coaching jobs in America or further afield, to get me on the road away from what I’ve done.”
My experience“I do feel like I would have a lot to give, a lot to offer in Ireland because of the experiences I’ve had. And I would be confident my experience would transfer to any sport, the lifestyle, the professionalism, the discipline, that’s common to all. It’s just a case of waiting for the right opportunity to come along.”
The feeling of being a nobody will pass, she’s sure, but it’s been a battle to let go of the life she had before.
It’s only four years since she was the third-ranked squash player in the world, back then she couldn’t imagine it ever ending. Time to move on, though, and she’s trying.