Feeling on top of the world

Close-up: Simon Parke; A young squash player is starting again in his quest to rule the sport. Andrew Baker charts a remarkable recovery
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The Independent Online
This should have been Simon Parke's year. The 23-year-old squash player from Nottingham finished 1995 ranked No 5 in the world, in the best form of his life and poised for a sustained push for the No 1 ranking. Yet on 1 January 1996 he was in Nottingham City hospital awaiting surgery on a potentially deadly tumour. Ahead lay weeks of pain and the special torture of chemotherapy. "It was not," Parke recalled, "a very happy new year."

He cut a sharp figure last Wednesday afternoon: mirror shades, designer stubble, close-cropped hair and a smart new burgundy Volkswagen Golf. But he's not a spiv or a hard man. When he took off the shades his eyes were dark blue and gentle and, endearingly, he couldn't work out the central locking system of his new car.

He was feeling a little stiff and tired, but with good reason: he had played 11 matches the evening before, 10 against fellow members of Nottingham Squash club, and then finally one against his England team-mate Peter Marshall, who is also based at the club. Not an entirely sensible course of action for a convalescent, but on the other hand they did raise more than pounds 2,000 for Leukaemia Research. "And it was fun," he claimed, almost convincingly. "We had a great night."

Simon Parke first played squash at the age of nine in his home town of Pontefract. Soon he was playing regularly, and it wasn't long before the boy was noticed by Jonah Barrington, as he travelled the country looking for promising young players.

"I first came across him when he was about 10," Barrington recalled. "Parkey was one of the best." Once he was in the England team - as an under-14 - he carried on up the ranks, successful at every level. His junior career was capped with the World Junior Championship in 1990. "That was my graduation," Parke said. "It was time to get on with the big boys."

So he did, whitewashing the biggest of them all, Jansher Khan, in Holland in 1991, his first senior year. Further impressive wins followed, but those close to him felt that Parke was not getting the most out of his talents. "He used to play with his heart rather than his head," Barrington said. "It was what I called his 'headless chicken' phase." But he developed both his game and a more professional attitude, and by 1995 was an established force at the top of the game. "At the end of last year," Barrington observed, "he was ready for a really main-line challenge on the top position." That challenge was to be delayed.

Parke returned from Cairo last December with the rest of the English players who had snatched the world team title from Pakistan. But when he got back to his home in Nottingham, he noticed that his right testicle had swollen and become harder to the touch. "I was concerned, of course, but I thought I might have just knocked it, so I did nothing about it for a fortnight." It didn't get better. "That's when the words 'Testicular Cancer' first came into my head, so I went to the doctor. He gave me some pills, but told me to come back if things didn't improve."

But first there was a tournament in Bombay, then it was Christmas, and it wasn't until 27 December that Parke saw his doctor again. Straight away he was referred to a urologist, who performed some tests. And the tests did not look good. "He told me: 'You do seem to have a growth.' I was just shocked. He tried to cheer me up, telling me that there was a 95 per cent cure rate and all that. But I still wasn't very happy."

On 2 January the cancerous testicle was removed. Parke was supposed to stay longer in hospital, but the next day he decided that he had had enough, and his girlfriend, Caroline Varley, collected him in a wheelchair and took him home.

It can't have been an easy time for Caroline, as Parke admits that he was frustrated by the period of convalescence. It wasn't just the discomfort and boredom. "I missed competing. You have to cultivate aggression as a sportsman, and you let it out on court. But if you don't have that outlet, it gets channelled in other ways. I became very argumentative about the smallest things."

Worse was to come: a precautionary course of chemotherapy, to try to make sure that the cancer had not spread. "It was dire," Parke recalled. "I had two long treatments - three days in hospital at a time - and two shorter ones, on consecutive weekends. Three days hooked up to a drip feeding you all these chemicals. They give you nausea-suppressing stuff but I was still sick a couple of times and felt sick the whole time. My hair didn't fall out until after the last treatment. I was washing my hair in the shower and I suddenly realised that I had hair on the palms of my hands. So I went to a barber's in Nottingham and got him to shave the lot off." He ran a hand carefully through the regenerating stubble on his crown. "It doesn't look too bad now, does it?"

Subsequent tests have shown no signs of the disease, and Parke is back on the long road to fitness. On Wednesday he flies out to Egypt for his first tournament since the illness. He'll follow that with a holiday, then serious work to get himself fit for the new season in September.

"I will just be happy to be back on court. That sounds like the classic English sportsman's cliche, you know, taking part is the only thing that counts. But after what I have been through I promise you it is absolutely true." Chris Walker, England's captain in the World Team Cup, can't wait to welcome him back. "It's really great to see him back, because all the guys really love the game, and if you take the game away from them you take away a big part of their lives."

Parke can be light-hearted about his ordeal - "I'm quicker about the court now, because I'm a little bit lighter and more streamlined" - but there is no doubt that it took all of his strength of will to recover so quickly. Barrington is full of admiration, but not surprised. "Simon has ferocious determination," he said, "undeniable strength and a natural competitive instinct. He is essentially a winner."

That determination is now focused on regaining strength and, ultimately, Jansher Khan's No 1 ranking. "That is what I have dreamt about," he said. "That is what has been my life's ambition. I'm not scared of anyone." He meant it. Simon Parke has been through fear, and is glad to be out the other side. Woe betide the opponent who thinks he can still be intimidated: this man has his priorities sorted out. "I'm here," he said. "And I'm healthy. And I'm happy for that."

Simon Parke's road to recuperation

January: Cancerous testicle removed in Nottingham City Hospital. Bed rest followed by gentle convalescence at home.

February: Chemotherapy as a precaution against the cancer spreading. Four treatments, long followed by short, long followed by short, in the course of four consecutive weekends.

March and April: Gentle exercise, and a few practice games. Towards the end of April, harder work: "ghosting" shots, the squash equivalent of shadow boxing, and hour-long solo sessions on court, trying out new shots and practising old ones.

May: A charity marathon tournament at Nottingham squash club: 11 matches in one evening. Then to Cairo for first tournament since 19 December: "I'll be very nervous."

June: Three weeks in the South of France with girlfriend Caroline. "Have a few drinks and relax."

July: Track work, mostly 400m sprints, and work in the gym on upper-body strength.

August: Competitive practice matches against other top English players; more track and gym work.

September: The target. The Hong Kong Open, the start of a new season.