Sunday, 05 April 2020

WHITIANGA WEATHER

Whitianga's world champion

In early November 1986, New Zealander Ross Norman was crowned world squash champion. He wasn’t the first Kiwi ever to win a world sporting title and he wouldn’t be the last, but his crowning as world squash champion was a first for the game in this country. His hard-earned victory would go on to raise the interest in and profile of the sport nationally and take it to new heights.   

Ross’s opponent in that world championship final held in Toulouse, France was the legendary Jahangir Khan from Pakistan. Khan had not only remained undefeated over five years and 555 matches, but was seen by the squash world as unbeatable. It took a huge effort from the Kiwi to topple the great man, which would ultimately become the launching pad from which Ross Norman would go on to forge a long and successful career in professional squash.   

It wasn’t all plain sailing from the start, however. Ross struggled for years making ends meet on the amateur circuit and a parachuting injury nearly ended his career. But perseverance and hard work finally paid off that night in southwest France.

In that dream year of 1986, Ross went on to win eight other international tournaments and remained a dominant player on the world circuit until his retirement in 1994. Along the way he played for New Zealand in seven world team championships. It was a career that would eventually see him inducted into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame in 2009.

But what makes his achievement so special in this part of the world, is the fact that Ross was born (on 7 January 1959) and raised in Whitianga. His siblings (an older brother and a younger sister and brother) were also all born in Whitianga.

The local squash club was where Ross’s love of the game began. It was to become his second home, a place where as a young novice, he learned to push his limits against the top local seniors and where he and others soon realised he had a natural gift and talent for the game.

In a recent interview with The Informer, Ross said, “When travelling around the world playing your sport or even living in other countries, you never forget where you were born, grew up and learned your trade, and that for me was Whitianga.”

Ross also revealed that the two people he looked up to the most as a youngster were top local players Jack Cooper and Harold Abrahamson, who both invested a lot in coaching him. “I really hoped that one day I would be as good at squash as they were,” Ross said.

Isolation and living away from all the large squash playing centres in the country was never a barrier either. While residing in Whitianga, Ross would go on to win the Auckland, North Island and New Zealand Under-13 titles at ages 11 and 12. “After winning the North Island Under 13 title, I played in and won my first national age group title which, in those days, was a big deal for a kid coming out of Whitianga,” Ross recalled.

Having parents who also played squash along with his two brothers was no doubt helpful, but it was his total dedication and commitment to the game which were to become Ross’s greatest attributes and, on occasions as a young schoolboy, lead him slightly down the wrong track. “I used to deliver the local paper and one of my parents’ favourite memories was of the times when they would get a series of phone calls from people saying that they hadn't received their paper on delivery day,” he said. “The reason was because half way around my circuit I would decide to call into the squash club and practise some shots. Once on court I completely lost track of time.

“The squash club became my parents’ first port of call whenever I went missing.  I used to literally live down there over summer and pounce on anyone who turned up without a partner. On one occasion I played a woman from Henderson, Auckland who was on holiday and I must have impressed her as, after the game, she went and had a word to my father and convinced him to send me up to play in the Henderson Junior Open the following month. It was to be the launching pad for my early career as I progressed through the ranks winning highly ranked age group tournaments more often than not.”   

The Norman family left Whitianga and moved to Auckland as Ross was starting high school and his older brother was beginning fifth form.  There were several reasons for the move, one of which was to try and give Ross the best opportunity to realise his full potential in squash.  

But it was those early days in Whitianga which gave Ross the opportunity to become the best he could be as a squash player. “I have often given talks to young squash players around New Zealand, telling them that if they really wanted to become good at their sport, living in a small or isolated town needn’t be a barrier,” he said. “I was from Whitianga and I became world champion. Every town has a Jack Cooper or a Harold Abrahamson who are more than willing to pass on their experience and guidance.

“All any up-and-coming athlete needs is a real hunger and desire to become the best they can be. They may not all become world champions, but with the right attitude they can go a lot further than they ever imagined possible.”  

Ross, who now resides in the UK, visited Whitianga last week and enjoyed catching up with Harold Abrahamson and Jack Cooper at Frankies Sports Bar and Grill, only metres from the Frankies “Wall of Fame” which proudly displays an action photo of Ross in his world champion days.

Ross retired from all squash not long after winning the British Open for over 55s in 2014. After snapping his achilles tendon, he decided to call it a day. Golf, tennis and road cycling are what keep him fit and active on a regular basis these days. He is still up for a new challenge, however. In October last year at age 60, he climbed Mt Kilimanjaro which he says is possibly the hardest thing he has ever done in his life.

Jack Cooper and Harold Abrahamson are extremely proud of their contribution to Ross Norman’s success. They not only gave him the opportunity and encouragement to grow as a squash player, they also gave him an everlasting positive memory of his life in Whitianga. A win-win for everyone.

Pictured: Jack Cooper (on the left), Ross Norman (centre) and Harold Abrahamson on Thursday last week at Ross’s squash world champion photo on the Frankies Sports Bar & Grill “Wall of Fame” in Whitianga.

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