Interview by ALAN THATCHER – Squash Mad Editor
Rod Bannister had just 24 hours to sell his property, pack his bags and move his family from Gold Coast back home to New Zealand as lockdown approached in Australia.
That meant Rod having to say a hasty goodbye to his “dream job” at the Carrara National Squash Center.
When the coronavirus struck and clubs were forced to close, Rod quickly spun into action and launched a Street Squash programme to enable squash players to keep active.
Then the national lockdown grew closer. Just two days prior to the borders shutting in his home country of New Zealand, Rod’s wife, Marama, mentioned that their young family should seriously consider moving back to NZ, thinking that this could be the best place for them to be in uncertain times.
At the time Rod was nearly a year into his dream job as Operations Manager at the National Squash Centre on the Gold Coast, a base for Squash Australia’s HP program where he also headed up coaching the Carrara Squash Academy.
He also sat on several Squash Australia workgroups as well as being an integral part of major events such as the World Doubles, several PSA tournaments and a good sprinkling of national competitions, as well as the World Juniors that was meant to be have taken place at the Centre a couple of months ago. He was also playing premier pennant at No.2 for the Carrara Squash Club prior to health issues with the inevitable squash hip that requires surgery.
Fast forward to today (after a dramatic rush to pack their lives up in Australia) where he has just recently accepted the challenge of managing one of New Zealand’s premier squash facilities, SquashGym Palmerston North. The club has eight ASB glass-backed courts, plus two full-size doubles courts in the middle of the City that has a commercial fitness centre and a commercial kitchen / bar and lounge area.
Since being back in NZ Rod had intentionally stayed at an arm’s length from the game, apart from working with his young daughter and assisting with a local junior program. But the challenge the once premier facility offered was too good to turn down. “Squash has been in the blood for over 40 years,” says Rod.
SquashGym has played host to several major events, including the 2006 World Junior Champs and the 2010 Woman’s World Teams Event.
Like many other sporting facilities it has had its fair share of challenges over the past few years. But with an immediate focus on building the membership base, acquisition of sponsor partners, developing club programs, applying to host major events and seeking funding grants, Rod is confident that after his international experience in Australia, along with a great new committee on board, the centre can once again return to its former glory days.
11 points with Rod Bannister
1: Rod, the coronavirus lockdown clearly changed the global sporting landscape. For you, it meant some significant personal upheaval. Please give us the background story behind your move back to New Zealand from a dream job in Australia.
A: My wife suggested we consider moving back to NZ a few days before we did. At that time I was a tab flabbergasted as we’d set up on the Gold Coast with an apartment, vehicles, work and the kids were at good schools. However, after hearing New Zealand’s plan to lock down as one nation we decided to return. We literally sold up, packed up, got rid of all household stuff and cars within one day and flew back home. In hindsight, it’s been the best decision we made.
2: Carrara was all set to host the World Junior Championship in the summer. How much work had to be canned because of the cancellation?
A: As you can imagine it’s no mean feat organising managing a local event let alone an international one. The planning team where I was to oversee the venue side of the Worlds were full steam ahead 12 months out so cancelling the event was massive, having to retract on many of the things we had put in place with various stakeholders.
3: Family always comes first, so I’m guessing this was at the heart of your move back to NZ.
A: Yes, whilst I had my “dream job”, our move back to New Zealand has been very fruitful in that my wife is in a high senior manager’s role, I’m back in the sport I love and my kids are back to their local schools and sport activities. So as a comparison we’re far better off all round back home.
4: The rest of the world has looked on in admiration at the way the NZ authorities have controlled the spread of the virus, although a few recent cases of infection have shown that nowhere is totally safe. What’s your take on the situation?
A: In short we’re very fortunate in NZ with the one leader and one police commissioner sort of model; quick decisions, generally the country get in behind a decision and just do it. We’re a country surrounded by water so it’s reasonably easy to keep people out. Our largest City, Auckland, has been affected more so than the rest of the country of late due to a rise in some cluster cases so they’re on a higher restriction level than the rest of the country. Respectfully, life is sort of back to normal in the rest of the country.
5: You are now settling into a new job at Squash Gym Palmerston North, one of New Zealand’s premier clubs. Please tell us how it’s all going?
A: Yes I’m very fortunate to be able to work back in the sport for 30 hours a week at this stage. SquashGym is a phenomenal facility in the CBD of Palmerston North. There’s some work to do but we have some great people wanting to make positive change. It’s very early stages but we’re in the process of putting some really cool stuff in place for our members and for future events.
6: What Covid-19 protocols are still in place?
A: In Auckland there’s no competitive squash allowed and you’re allowed gatherings of up to 10 with sign-in policies at all clubs and social distancing rules in place. For the rest of the country there is competitive squash allowed with gatherings of up to 100.
7: You were a real trailblazer in the way you responded to the lockdown by launching Street Squash activities all over the place in Oz. What was the response?
A: The response was extremely good, a really good following and the take-up driven really well by the team at Squash Australia at that time.
8: Your Street Squash idea was on of the inspirations behind plans for World Squash Day 2020. With the virus still rampant in various parts of the world, it became impossible to follow the traditional route of inviting large numbers of newcomers into poorly ventilated courts, so we had to change our plans accordingly. This led to the World Squash Federation inviting every nation to take to the streets to promote the game on World Squash Day. What’s happening in NZ?
A: Yes, I’m loving your vision for the game to evolve going forward. As you know I’m an advocate for us to having to present the game to the public, including partnering up with potential major industry chains e.g. food and to have us in the eye of the public i.e. outdoors. New Zealand has no presence at all in StreetSquash. As you know, you have to have a key driver to instigate any initiative with a great support crew; so watch this space!
9: One of the benefits of lockdown was the opportunity to enjoy time for reflection. A lot of discussion has taken place about how open-air courts could help to make squash more Covid-compliant and also make the game more visible to the wider public. Your thoughts, please?
A: I’m converted and believe it has to happen for our sport to survive. I believe it’s just a matter of time. We’re kidding ourselves if we think we can survive with the current models we operate under as a stand-alone sport. We desperately need to take our sport to a new audience in new ways. The closed door, lights off, cold, damp, unwelcoming, stodgy old aristocratic club member approach that our sport has adopted needs to change. We must make it cool, funky, affordable, easy to access, colourful, social-platform driven, technology-driven, easy to play, and open to the public.
10: New Zealand has some truly inspirational players in Paul Coll and Joelle King. How much is their success being built on to help grow the game back home?
A: Minimal. That’s to be expected as we couldn’t even promote the game to the public when Ross Norman and Susan Devoy were world champions with national roadshows etc. We’re too reserved to celebrate success in this country. Nobody shouts from the rooftops about our champions across industry or sport. It’s not the ‘Kiwi way.’ Tall poppy syndrome is very alive in this country. It’s OK to be OK, but not great!
11: Finally, I hope you are able to stay healthy and keep playing to a high level. What are your goals for yourself, the club and promoting the game in NZ?
Well, I’m due for hip surgery in October so the goal is to rehab well, walk, jog, run and play again to some level even if it’s doubles without severe pain.
With SquashGym it’s to build a positive culture through forming great relationships with all stakeholders including club programs, sponsors, our awesome members and the community working in closely with the new committee.
Personally, I want to be an influencer in changing the way we deliver the game so working alongside the likes of yourself and various other people around the world to grow our game. This could include outdoor builds and new models of how we experience the game. As we both know, these discussions are under way around the world.
Thank you, Rod, for some illuminating answers. Your move home is an incredible story. Good luck with everything, especially the new hip. You’ll be fine. Just stock up on some strong pain-killers!
Pictures courtesy of Rod Bannister