Squash and brains gets promising Malaysian youngster Yong Sue Ann into Harvard
By ALEX WAN – Squash Mad Asian Bureau Editor
For many years now, the lure of a place in a top American university and the opportunity to play college squash has been an attraction for many top juniors.
This however, creates an issue with regards to retaining talent. It is in fact, the failure to do so. Year after year, promising Malaysian youngsters have left the country to pursue this path and, very often, never return.
As Andrew Cross, the Malaysian junior coach said in an interview, “There’s really not much we can do about it and, honestly, I don’t see a solution to it.”
Just recently, Yong Sue Ann started her Freshman year in Harvard University. The Aquarian is also the first Malaysian to gain admission into the prestigious institution in three years.
Sue Ann has won the National Junior Championships in every age group, the Dutch Junior Open under-19, the Australian Junior Open under-13 and 15 and the US Junior Open under-17. She’s also played in two World Junior Championships and reached the semi-finals of the British Junior Open.
The 19 year old had already been in America for the last three years attending high school in Taft School. In doing so, it meant that she had to give up her place in the national team, thus exhausting any chances to play in team events or be funded for any tournaments.
However, that did not stop her from completing her junior career on a high note, as she paid her way to compete in the World Junior Championships, the Dutch Junior Open and the Pioneer Junior Open last year.
Just before she left for Harvard, “the little girl squatting in front of Peter Nicol”, as I remember her, spared us some time to give an insight on her future and what it’s like living away from home the last few years.
Of course, I was very ecstatic. I was also looking at a couple different schools and they were all amazing, so there really wasn’t a wrong decision to make.
Q: So why Harvard then?
I liked the Harvard squash team and I’ve known some of them on the team through the years of playing squash, so I’m glad to finally be a part of it now.
Q: What will you be majoring in at Harvard?
I do not have to decide on my major until my second year, so I’m still trying out courses that I’m interested in. Currently, I’m thinking of possibly Psychology, but I’m still keeping my options open with Chemistry and Biology too.
Q: As a squash player, what is your ultimate goal?
There’s a certain feeling and adrenaline you get when competing with the best players in the world that cannot be traded with anything else. For now, I’ll just take the opportunity to train and play the best I can at college and see where that takes me.
Q: Do you plan to play professionally?
At the moment, I haven’t really thought about it. I love the opportunity to be able to study and play competitive college squash at the same time. I definitely love playing squash, and I’ll just see where it takes me after college.
Q: Your senior in Harvard, Amanda Sohby (right) and Mohamed El Shorbagy, the new world number one, have both juggled between university and playing professionally. Is this something you are considering?
I’m already happy playing at college level together with some of the best juniors in the world right now. It’s already a big commitment having to juggle that with studying.
Both Amanda and Mohamed were already doing so well on the professional circuit even before college, so it makes sense that they continue doing so. It takes a tremendous amount of effort, discipline and sacrifice to do what they have done, and I admire them for their achievements.
Q: Having left home to finish high school in Taft, what was it you experienced there which you think you wouldn’t have been able to if you had stayed back in Malaysia?
Taft is a small boarding prep school with a maximum of 15 students per class, compared to about 50 in Malaysia. Hence, there was a lot more attention and opportunity to participate in open class discussions rather than the conventional lectures. There was also much more emphasis on public speaking, presentations, creative and critical thinking skills.
I also think that living and learning with fellow students from diverse backgrounds and nationalities in a boarding school environment has taught me to be much more independent and self-assured than I could ever imagine myself to be.
Q: You’ve been training and travelling a lot for squash from a very young age. What have those years taught you in life that others (who go through a more conventional childhood) will not get?
Traveling all over the world gave me so much exposure to things I will not see back home. It also meant opportunities to meet people from all over the world whom I competed with.
However, there are also a lot of sacrifices that comes with it. I would miss an average of up to two months of school a year just competing for squash. It has definitely taught me how to prioritise my time well in order to juggle between squash and school work.
All the discipline, dedication and perseverance that you put into your sport, I believe translates into all the other aspects in life. It helps me recognise how much hard work pays off and also learn to appreciate the good times and the tough times.
Q: As you know, we ran a rather well-received story on Andrew Cross. So we understand you were a student of his for some time. Tell us, what sets him apart from the other coaches?
Yes, I was training under Andrew for about three or four years. I admire him as a coach, a friend and a person.
When he first came to Malaysia, he was relatively young, so I think he could relate to many of the juniors well.
For me, personally, Andrew was more of a friend than a coach. I never felt like I was asking for permission to do something (even when I did). Everyone just felt comfortable around him and I think that is an important aspect between a coach and a player.
Even after being away for three years now, we still maintain an active friendship. Every now and then, he will check to see how I’m doing and whenever I go back home, we meet and catch up.