Squash: Beachill, Britain's miracle man of the court

A broken back stopped him playing for only three months, so Olympic mission should be easy for world No 1.
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The Independent Online

The destination of the 2012 Olympics Games is not the only item on the agenda when the International Olympic Committee meet in Singapore next July. Five cities are up for consideration - but so are five sports, all, one or none of which may be included in those Games.

The destination of the 2012 Olympics Games is not the only item on the agenda when the International Olympic Committee meet in Singapore next July. Five cities are up for consideration - but so are five sports, all, one or none of which may be included in those Games.

The merits of golf, rugby union, karate, and roller sports will be debated alongside that of squash, which, despite its simplicity and escalating popularity, has been consistently knocked back. Indeed, those who assiduously hit the little ball against the wall are entitled to feel that as far as Olympic recognition is concerned, they also have been hitting their heads against it. The modern game may be played with glass walls, but there seems to be something of a glass ceiling.

However, while squash may have been squeezed out in the past there is now a chance that, like London, its time may come in 2012.

Lee Beachill certainly hopes so. He is not only British but the best in the world, a combination somewhat rarer than pizza and soup in sport these days. It is a position he will be defending, after receiving daily treatment for a strained abductor, in the Harris British Open starting at Nottingham's Albert Hall today. It is a situation that six years ago seemed even more of an impossible dream than squash itself gaining Olympic status.

The 26-year-old Yorkshireman is literally a walking miracle. When he broke his back in two places in a road accident, skidding on ice returning from a Super League match, he was initially told that he might never get back on his feet again, never mind return to the squash court.

So how did he lift himself after the inevitable depression that followed that prognosis? "Life for me has always been about the next challenge. It was a challenge to learn to walk again, and once I did that I realised that if I was determined enough, I could play squash again, and all the time I was thinking, 'When can I get back on court?' I focused myself on a particular tournament two months away and said, 'I am going to play in that'."

That was the next challenge. "A couple of months after the accident, I had forgotten about it, I was so focused on my target." He was determined that his would not be a wheelchair existence. He insisted on trying to walk himself through the pain. His rehabilitation began with frames, then crutches, walking with the assistance of his parents and finally over the hills and dales near his home.

Remarkably, he was only hospitalised for five days, and he picked up his racket again within three months. "In one respect I was lucky that the injury I had was what they call a stable fracture. For 24 hours a day all I was bothered about was the next target I had set myself. However, I must admit that I never thought then that I would be in the position I am now. I was 20 years old at the time, and being the world's No 1 squash player was just one of those things you sat around daydreaming about."

"Sure, I feel enormously proud of what I have done to go from possibly being a cripple for the rest of my life to being the world No 1. Now there is another challenge - and that is to stay there." The sports' fastest-rising star - the first player ever successfully to defend the British national title - clinched the world No 1 spot last month after picking up four major titles since December.

Like so many in the sport, Beachill gets angry when asked about its continuing exclusion from the Olympic Games. "No one has ever given me a valid reason why it should not be an Olympic sport, especially when you look at some of those which are included.

"It is a game which is played universally by some 50 million people. I think more than 60 nations compete in the World Championships.

"Whatever the reasons behind it, they are ridiculous. I would respectfully suggest there is more of the true Olympic spirit in squash than there is in many other sports, but the fact is that if the powers that be don't want squash to be included in the Olympics, then it never will be. But if there is one person in the right position who wants squash, then it will be in tomorrow." Or at least in 2012.

Squash believes it has the right credentials, being well structured with two professional circuits, and unlike either rugby, golf, or tennis, an Olympic tournament would be its ultimate prize.

Beachill has succeeded his friend and rival Peter Nicol, who misses the Open because of an ankle injury, as world No 1. Together they won gold in the last Commonwealth Games, in Manchester. So why is it that squash continues to have a relatively low profile when Britain is so good at it? "The main problem is that there is no one really marketing the game in the way it should be. Even though many thousands of people play it, it is still regarded as a minority sport, a social game."

He dismisses the notion that squash is strictly a middle-class pursuit. "I can see where that image has come from, the suits in the big cities having a game in their lunch hour, but take Pontefract, where I come from, it's a working men's town, and we are all working class at the squash club."

Beachill's father is a road haulage contractor, and Beachill himself says that while he was considered academically bright at his local comprehensive school, he was never really bothered about forging a career, other than being a professional squash player. Beachill says squash totally envelops his life. He has a partner and two children and is planning to get married.

"But at the moment, everything in my life is secondary to squash. I have been playing since I was eight when my dad, a keen social squash player, introduced me to it. For me it has always been squash, squash and more squash. I did get into golf when I was 14 [he now plays off six] but I've never really given it the same sort of attention as squash."

Meanwhile, there are more challenges to be met. "I want to win even more titles. I don't think it will be until I have stopped playing and achieved what I want that I'll actually sit down and think, 'Yeah, that was brilliant'."