Quick fire 5:
1. Coffee, black or with milk?
2. What is your most used emoji?
😎 or 👌
3. If you could invite any 3 people to dinner for the night, who would you invite?
Serena Williams, Michelle Obama & my sister (currently breaking through the music industry, 3 kids under 5 years old)
4. If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Yoghurt, it has all the sustenance you need!
5. If there was a movie made about your life, which actress would you choose to play you?
Could you tell me a little bit about your life right now?
From a career perspective, I have made the shift away from a very large and important chunk of my life, being a professional squash player, toward the business world where I went into a business analyst role. COVID 19 lockdown has helped to slow things down and help me to rethink and realign things in my life. It has helped me to appreciate family life a lot more, where I have experienced a lot of good transitions recently. I have one tall and bubbly three-year-old daughter who is definitely saying “no” a lot these days. I love being with my family and working from home - lockdown has brought the reassessment that I probably needed. I wouldn’t have given myself time to just figure out what’s working and what’s not working, what changes I could make and what things could I try. It’s helped me take a step closer to the goals that I still have laid out for myself and want to achieve.
What gets you up in the morning?
The thing that’s always got me up in the morning is a good exercise session. In the season I am currently in, it’s been getting up and checking that my daughter is fine, that she’s not crying, that her blankets are still on her, etc. The morning for me is one of the most crowded parts of my mind where there is so much that is fighting for my attention. Before I had a child, my first thoughts were generally to get up and go to the gym, exercise and release some endorphins. I have recently discovered that I am much grumpier in the mornings than I used to be, so fitting in exercise quite early in the morning is a good thing.
With the lockdown, I haven’t really been able to play squash, so my go-to now is to get out and go for a run. I think the biggest thing from when I was a professional squash player has been changing from a person who loved to train for hours and hours, and ate whenever they wanted, into someone who appreciates the value of being able to train effectively for just 30 minutes. So, even if it’s a 30-minute run or an explosive exercise workout, the important thing is keeping a steady routine. Over the last 2 weeks, squash has had a phased approach in allowing people back on court, and I am allowed to play squash again.
Could you tell me a little bit about what your life was like growing up?
I grew up in the Eastern Cape. My parents live in East London. My parents were teachers initially and then changed careers later on in their lives, with my father changing from Headmaster to an Attorney. From a young age I had the opportunity to go to a private school, DSG. At the time, just before 1994, private schools were the only ones opening up to admit black children. The advantage of a school like that was obviously that I had access to so much. I was a bouncy kid and learnt to play every sport there was. That’s where I learnt to play squash, tennis, hockey, you name it, I played it all. Then in high school I moved to Clarendon Girls High School. Because of my exposure, I just took to things and just absolutely enjoyed what I did. Even though we lived in East London, my parents still wanted me to be in boarding school because, to them, I was used to this world with access to things like sport, music (piano), etc. Being in boarding school provided me the space to practice all these things I enjoyed, which I didn’t have access to at home.
I had parents who were very encouraging. People often ask my parents: “What did you guys do to your kids?”. My sister is also doing well – she has found her rhythm and doing well in music. My brother was a Lions rugby player. My parents were loving, stern and disciplined, like many Xhosa households. However, when it came to sport or anything we did, they were never pushy. They used to ask us as kids, “What is it that you want or want to try?” and then encouraged us to go for it. The only thing close to a ‘push’ were times when before bedtime I told my dad I was going to wake up at 5am to go for a run and if it was 5:10am and I was still snoring in bed, all you’d hear is this head come through and say: “I thought you said you were going for a run?”. That was it, then he just walked away. I’m grateful for encouraging parents who just backed us in everything we did. They made sure we could find our own lanes and excel where we could without any direct pushing, as I think some people might expect. With time, as they raised each kid, they learnt different ways to be able to support. Since they were working, it wasn’t always easy for them to be there for the various events, but when they could, they would. My mom came to watch a squash match of mine one time and I lost it. It was early days and she thought her presence may have been a distraction, so she didn't come and watch for a while, but got to see me lift the National Women's Championship Trophy in Johannesburg.
What dreams did you have when you were younger?
Sport was always in there, but I didn’t know what that meant. You obviously saw male sports role models in soccer, rugby, cricket and there were a few women role models at the time that came through athletics or road running like the ‘Elana Meyer’ of the time. Tennis is another place where I directly saw female role models. However, the ability to be able to practice by myself was a huge factor that drew me to squash. With squash, there is a nice little block where you can hit to yourself, something that allowed me to progress quickly. I think with tennis, it came down to a lack of access. With hockey and tennis, in the model that I saw, I needed a partner. You have a tennis wall, but it’s different. I needed a partner to be able to progress at any decent rate. I felt that there were barriers for me in tennis. Particularly because of my colour and probably because of what my parents could or could not afford. “This is not the right Tennis racket”, “These are not the right shoes”, “She’s only coming to squad once a week”, “She needs to do ‘xyz’ every day”. So there were a lot of barriers whereas with squash, I could practice by myself and, with that, my rate of improvement just took off - I didn’t have to rely on too many people to open the doors for me. I got exposed to tournaments quite early and I got the hunger for it quickly. I think I just felt the equality quite quickly in the sense that if you could play and show your skill, people just let you play and you got on with it. I think that was definitely a pull.
At the same time, I also knew academically it was important to have a degree behind me. For a long time I went along saying I wanted to be a doctor. The reality was, I probably did not know what I wanted to be. It was a tough one knowing how to fight for the sport element in my life. I knew I had a gift, but at the same time I knew I had to bridge it with academics and take that part of my life forward as well. I knew I wanted to be a sportsperson. At the same time, I knew there was a bigger world that I wanted to be a part of, particularly in business but it wasn’t something I had been exposed to and my subjects of strength included maths and science in high school.
How has the way your life has panned out so far differed or been similar to those dreams?
It’s weird, there are moments when you catch yourself going “what if, what if?”. But it’s actually useless to do that. I look back and think: “How amazing that I have had this incredible life to do exactly what I wanted for 8 years”. I travelled the world hitting around a little black ball and it was such an incredible experience. I did that with the support of an amazing man and husband, which is just unheard of. I just look at the way the path opened up for me to pursue being a professional squash player on the world circuit and I am so grateful to have had that opportunity to travel the world doing what I loved.
I remember early on, in Grade 11 or 12, I was good enough to play Women’s League. I would play on a Monday or Tuesday night against various adults (in East London). After playing our matches we would sit down and eat dinner together before being taken back to boarding school. I remember sitting at these dinners with these adults, people who I knew had their dream jobs, had their dream careers, had their cars and their families. This was all supposedly what I was aspiring to have one day, but around these tables I can still hear them talking about how they wished they’d used their sporting talents, or how they’d still look back on their high school days or university days with such high regard as if they missed it and as if they had missed opportunities. Those were such poignant moments, thinking I should be chasing the lives they had. Yet, there they were, looking at my 16-year-old life and saying “how amazing that you have this gift. I wish I had used it more”. Those were turning moments, that made me think that when I got to that stage of life, I didn’t want to have those regrets. I was blessed to have seen it that way at a young age.
Who was your role model growing up and why?
I had different people at different times. When I look back, there were many hands that came into my life for short periods. To this day, I look back and appreciate people who took a moment to correct me or put me on a path. There was a key lady who was a role model for squash, Geraldine Morcom. She was the best in the East London area - she was the number 1 and I was ranked one behind her. She was such an incredible human being who really looked after me and who was so encouraging from a squash perspective.
If I look back, I never had a coach who was dedicated to me throughout high school. I only had a coach when I finished school, so it was always just the teachers. There was an incredible sports teacher at the time, Mrs. Patrick, who was always an encouraging voice. I remember many hands that helped me and propelled me. Whether it be if they opened up their house when I had to play a tournament and needed accommodation, or whether it was someone saying “Siyoli, have you thought about how you could play your squash like this?”. I feel like I had many of those encounters which have made me who I am, even to this day.
What personal challenge(s) did you face as a young person and how have those shaped you?
Learning to embrace myself - really embrace myself for all that I am. I think there are times where you can be fragmented, where you find yourself playing a different role to the different people in the various areas of your life and in the process not being true to yourself. Embracing who I am, a woman who loves sport, loves Christ, loves music, loves to learn, is a mother and a wife - everything flows from there. I think embracing myself for all that I am and not being scared that I could be too much for someone or that this light may shine too bright. We often want to make people feel happy and comfortable. I was the type to dim down the light. I’m learning to fully embrace who I am. Lockdown has helped me to reaffirm that.
Has education played a positive role in your life and if so, how?
It’s been a huge part of my life and it still is. I am grateful that I was taught early on how to learn. We take it for granted that some people struggle with education, not because they can’t do the work, but actually the basic skills of knowing how to learn was never shown to them. I love learning, even to this day. I love learning different languages and learning from people with different ideas.
My education really opened doors. I received a scholarship to study A-levels and play overseas in England for 2 years at a school called Millfield School, where a former world champion was the coach, Jonah Barrington. Education propelled me to play the sport that I did, as well as prepare the way for me to study further. There is so much more to life than sport. I think besides giving me an open mind, education allowed me to view the world in different ways that not only impact my life, but also those I interact with.
How do you use your current platform to bring a positive influence in South Africa’s young women?
Currently, I am involved with the development of squash. I am creating a space for children from previously disadvantaged areas to be able to play the sport, with boys and girls who come from various townships in Cape Town. It’s not a public platform, but it’s one that is very close to my heart in trying to guide young people, letting them know they have got other options in life. At first, it started out with a big, big dream. At the end of the day it’s become about being there with them and being a steady place and safe place, being somebody who sees them, somebody who hears them, somebody who believes in them and also someone who is encouraging them to be their unique selves. I want to let them know that they are welcome as they are. That’s how I am currently trying to use my platform, saying: “I see you. I hear you. How can we journey together?”.
What are you still hoping to accomplish in the next couple of years?
One of the things I want to do is to take this squash platform more public. Everyone asks why I haven’t set it up properly as an NPO. In fact, I have been asking myself why I have been hesitant. It came down to the fact that I don’t like the current models out there in terms of how some development programs can be seen. The main thing is that it shouldn’t be a program where we are happy to just help young black kids get exposure to squash. It should be a program that even the CEO of a thriving business would be happy to have their kid come through. That’s the quality and standard I want it to be. It’s got to be the best for these kids. Not second hand, but to give the best we can offer them.
What piece of advice would you give to the young women of South Africa?
That you are enough. You are enough! I think as women there are so many boxes that society and life can ask you fit into for whatever reason, which can sometimes be slightly different from men, who don’t have the same boxes. My biggest wish is that they realize that they are enough, and that uniqueness is such beauty. To get over the fear of standing out. Really, you are enough. Your uniqueness is the treasure. So, just own it!
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