Squash legend Nicol David is a pig.
The eight-time world champion may have more titles and records than any female squash player in history, but according to the Chinese zodiac (which is celebrated in David’s native Malaysia), she has always been and always will be a swine. David was born in 1983: the Year of the Pig.
“I really fulfill the criteria,” she told Excelle Sports, laughing. “I like to eat. I like to sleep. I like to do nothing if I don’t need to do anything.”
In other words, the 33-year-old player, who was ranked world No. 1 for longer than any other athlete, male or female, ever at 108 consecutive months, fully admits that she’s a bit lazy at heart.
Although her humility may also be fitting—the Chinese believe pigs to be modest creatures—David should give herself more credit.
Squash is one of the toughest sports in the world cardiovascularly: In 2004, ESPN released a study that rated squash as more demanding than middle-distance running. David sometimes runs 400-meter intervals to keep in good squash shape.
But she is not always fond of these running sessions, she said. She remembers the year she won her first world championship at the age of 22. It was the end of her season, so weeks of celebration and vacation followed, but when she returned to training in Malaysia, her coach welcomed her back with, what seemed, an endless number of court sprints.
“Oh … My body was not ready for it,” she said. “I felt ill. I drank too much water.”
David puked right on court in front of a group of ogling fans … who then cheered to see their hero in action.
“They were like, ‘Yay! She did her training,” David said. “They didn’t even pay attention that I made a mess.”
Perhaps David’s tolerance for pain—and humiliation—comes from a pig’s capacity for intense concentration. According to the zodiac, once the Chinese pig sets her eyes on a goal, she will devote all of her time and energy toward it, no matter what. David’s dream has been—and still is—to become the “complete” squash player—one who is quick, smart, fit and technically immaculate.
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“I think the best part of [the training] is the results,” said David of some of her more grueling practices. “All that hard work pays off. In matches, when push comes to shove, those trainings will make a difference. Mentally and physically. Why cut corners when you know you’re going to achieve your goals?”
David’s dream of becoming the world’s best squash player began when she was 5 years old. As a girl growing up in Penang, Malaysia, she would often accompany her father to watch her two older sisters, Lianne and Cheryl, at their squash lessons. David found that she couldn’t sit still.
“I was very hyper so they would have to let me play,” she said. “I may have snuck a racquet in the house [and] played against the wall before I actually played [the sport]. I was just happy to do something with the ball and racquet. So when I started to play squash, I think it was quite natural and I loved it straight away.”
David followed her passion for playing squash, joining the competitive circuit and then steadily climbing up the junior world rankings as a teenager. In 1999, she won her first World Junior Squash Championship, and by 2005, she was one of the top five players on the pro tour.
But according to David, the young player didn’t hit her stride until she met her current coach, former world No. 1 Liz Irving of the Netherlands, in 2005. At that time, David knew that her game was becoming predictable, and while she was one of the best squash players in the world, the Malaysian star wanted perfection. So she packed her bags and moved to the Netherlands, knowing Irving could make her into the best player she could possibly be.
“We hit it off straight away,” said David. “The way [Liz] works is about how you can keep improving and refine, refine, refine. You can’t be at the top if you are just content with what you have—you have to keep innovating. That’s the exciting part.”
Exciting doesn’t begin to describe the unprecedented success David accomplished for the next decade shortly after she hooked up with Irving. In 2006, David became the first Asian woman to top the PSA World Rankings. Later that same year, she acquired the world No. 1 spot, which she held on for nine years—the longest record in squash history. Her talent and marketability earned her sponsorships from Gatorade, Prince, Oakley and currently, Asics and CIBM Bank.
These types of sponsorships have also made David a multimillionaire—a unique feat in the world of women’s sports. Since turning pro in 2000, David has won 80 titles, and her net worth is now estimated to be $80 million. Last year, she was rated as the richest Malaysian athlete. And it’s all fitting, too, as the pig is known for its prowess with money.
Despite achieving the kind of success that could easily inflate an athlete’s ego, David remains humble, typically plying an infectious smile. The Chinese say pigs are generous and compassionate souls, so naturally, David wants to share her talents with the world. She currently runs a squash academy in her home city of Penang.
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“I want to make it bigger within Malaysia first, and hopefully [it will] become an international hub one day,” she said. “All the principles I learned, I can pass [them] on to the next group of coaches to then take the next batch of kids and really groom them properly.”
A doer off the court as much as she is in it, David is also creating the Nicol David Foundation to help influence more girls through sport and build self-esteem.
Today, David is no longer the top-ranked squash player in the world—she currently floats around the No. 7 position. And she hasn’t won a tournament since 2015, most recently bowing out of Chicago’s Windy City Open after she lost to world No.1 Nour El Sherbini in the quarterfinals. But pigs don’t panic. David’s journey is about working on herself and not worrying about the competition or rankings.
“I just want to feel good at each tournament,” she said. “I’m getting to the point where the things I am putting together are finally fitting in. I just have to trust that it works. Of course it’s been very challenging, but I love the challenge. I’m already finding so much more dimension in my game now than I ever thought I could.”
Chasing perfection is a never-ending adventure for David as she heads to her next tournament in Colombia on Wednesday, which is also International Women’s Day. She will also headline the Ciudad de Floridablanca in March—the most lucrative South American squash tournament of all time. Perhaps there David will win and take home a chunk of the tournament’s $70,000 prize money. But for now, the pig needs to focus on one thing at a time.
“It’s just really about taking things tournament by tournament, step by step,” she said. “It’s quite exciting, this season.”