‘I have some bad vices in my life but I can get the demons out of my system by going on to the squash court’
By ALAN THATCHER (Squash Mad Editor)
Yesterday we talked to Canadian international Shawn Delierre about his extraordinary experiences during the pandemic, when he volunteered to help the Red Cross in Quebec.
That quest to support his community in a period of extreme need has developed into a secondary career alongside his squash. Amazingly, he is now working nights in the health care industry and training during the day.
We enjoyed a two-hour conversation on the phone last night before Shawn headed off to work.
He says he is happier than ever with a new-found balance in his life, but at 40 he is showing no signs of wanting to give up squash.
We discussed some of the challenging moments he experienced dealing with dementia patients who had been deprived of human contact during lockdown and how Shawn’s bright, engaging personality helped to bring a smile to their faces.
Shawn, of course, features in the record books as having played in the longest squash match in history, plus two others in the top four!
The record was the 11–6, 4–11, 11–6, 7–11, 16–14 defeat to Leo Au of Hong Kong in the semi-finals of the Holtrand Gas City Open in Medicine Hat, Canada, in 2015 lasting 170 minutes.
That eclipsed the long-held record established by Jahangir Khan and Gamal Awad in the final of the Chichester Squash Festival in 1983, which Jahangir won 9–10, 9–5, 9–7, 9–2 in 166 minutes.
Shawn and Adrian Waller battled for 157 minutes in the final of the National Capital Open 2013 in Washington DC, before Shawn nicked it 11–13, 12–10, 14–12, 4–11, 14–12.
In the semi-final of the 2008 Baltimore Cup, Shawn beat fellow Canadian Shahier Razik 9–11, 8–11, 11–7, 13–11, 11–5 in a match lasting150 minutes.
We could have talked on for hours about those battles, and I would have gently teased him about his movement in and out of the back corners, but it was close to 11pm and Shawn was off to work.
He has always been a tough guy to get off court, and, at 40, he says he has no intention of leaving that gladiatorial box just yet. Here, Shawn tells the story of how his life has taken a new and rewarding direction after volunteering for the Red Cross during lockdown:
I had a lot of different moments when I was confronted with new experiences in a new world.
Dealing with this new world during the pandemic was full of highs and lows. At one time I was asked to visit a care home where the patients suffering from dementia were all together on the second floor.
During lockdown they were unable to receive visits from family members and my job with the Red Cross was to go in and try to raise morale among the residents.
My colleagues and I all had to wear full-body, protective suits, plus masks and visors. It was boiling hot and I was sweating.
My job was to engage with the patients as much as I could and simply through talking to them I was able to make them smile and laugh.
At times I felt very uncomfortable in the suit but I chose not to leave the room. I had the power to leave that room but the patients … they were not leaving.
In those uncomfortable moments I forced myself to pause and assess the situation. I am here for another one to two hours to give value to these people’s lives, maybe just for a second or two before they lose concentration.
Those are the moments when you don’t look at the closed-in environment. You don’t look at the darkness of the room. You are meeting people who need something in their lives in this dark corner of life where they are left alone.
I would tell them funny stories about my life and talk about aliens, and it was gratifying and rewarding to see them smile.
I soon came to realise that there is no way to control dementia.
Sometimes I got punched and I also ducked a few punches that were thrown. The staff and I received training in how to deal with these situations. You have to control your emotions and always put the patients first.
Often, it felt like being in a tournament with long hours and ups and downs but I loved that whole experience.
For some years I have been asking God for something different. My life in squash was planned out, my friends are all in squash, and I wanted something else in my life.
I kept asking: What can I do, God?
I am now 40 and I was getting calls about coaching jobs offering $100k a year but I wasn’t sure I was ready for that type of role, where you have to spend hours away from the club selling and promoting the business.
I am happy that I now have a new take on life. I jumped into my new health care role with enthusiasm and looked and learned all the time.
I am still working as an athlete during the day and at night I put on a different suit and join a different battle.
You see things differently, especially in a place where there is not a lot of love, and the patients are deprived of a human touch or the chance to talk to someone.
I could sense that this was my calling and if I didn’t talk to some of these dementia patients every day and do my best to add some quality to their lives, then I felt that something was missing.
It was, and still is, so very different to my life as a professional squash player. In sport, athletes are the most selfish people in the world. Everything revolves around your own personal needs, but now I feel I have the right balance in life. I am still training every day and staying mondo healthy, despite having some pretty bad vices in my life which I enjoy to the full!
I am lucky that I can get the demons out of my system by going on to the squash court, hitting balls into their targets and the fitness takes care of my mental health.
I know I have a wandering mind but squash sets me straight. I know I have to stay healthy to stay in that buzz that you get with training and playing tournaments.
I love the balance I have right now. Being a positive person helps. You have to know how to enjoy yourself.
I go to a tournament and all my friends are still in the sport. Leaving that would create a huge void in my life and the game still has a huge influence on my life.
I have a deep love for the sport and I find myself wondering about what Jonathon Power and Ramy Ashour are up to. And wondering if James Willstrop is still playing.
I recently played in a brilliant tournament in Windsor, Ontario, and I loved meeting up with JP and JK: Jonathon Power and Jahangir Khan!
Jahangir and I greeted each other with fist bumps and he was busy signing copies of your book all over the place. The atmosphere was amazing, the very essence of squash.
I look back at that era of competition between JP and Peter Nicol and it was an intense rivalry. JP was the anti-hero and Peter was this mercurial Mr Nice Guy who never got flustered and behaved like Roger Federer!
So much of my life still revolves around my squash friends and we hold each other up when we see each other at the club.
Now I have another string to my bow it’s not all about bringing home the cheque from squash because I am earning money from my career in the health sector.
I know that by working nights I get home when most other people are just starting their day, and after a hard match or a tough training session I think: Why do I do this to myself?
I know that I am good to still be around 50 to 60 in the world but my mindset is all about enjoying the moment and not having plans for a final destination. That’s what subdues too many players, setting targets that they are never capable of reaching.
I know that one day I will hang up the racket but my life balance is better than ever. I love to indulge my thoughts in business, a few stocks, art, sport, playing my guitar, learning Spanish, and spending time with my incredible wife.
I am also going back to school and trying to get a fast-track place to help me get my degree.
I guess that I will end up coaching one day as a squash pro but I know that we need to do things differently in that department. We need new things and new ideas.
For now, the pay cheque is coming in, I am staying fit, and still dreaming about the next tournament.
‘Never, ever give up … I just keep running and getting all those great shots back – I chase the ball down and eventually they hit the tin’
Let’s finish with a quote from Shawn from the 2016 World Championships, when he spoke about his never-say-die attitude to the sport:
“I like playing catch-up; it’s got a lovely tasting taste. I was chatting with (fellow Canadian) Andrew Schnell, and he asked me what I thought was my best attribute. And I said I just dig in. And never, ever give up, never quit. Constantly, I have hope, I have hope, I have hope.
“I just keep running and getting all those great shots back. I chase the ball down, and eventually, they hit the tin. They have got to play superb shots again and again, but then they make the error. You have just got to work hard enough to take that hope away from them.
“There is nothing worse than finishing a squash match, and not being tired. Not feeling you gave your all. If you play a 3-2 match against a good or great player, somewhere in there, you played good squash.”
Related article on Canada’s marathon man
Pictures courtesy of Shawn Delierre and Squash Canada