Monday, June 24, 2024

The making of Gina Kennedy: GB Squash No.1

Georgina Kennedy was born without her neck having to be supported in any way. Then, at four months old, she could sit unsupported. She could even run as an 18-month toddler. “She was strong from the get go,” Kennedy’s mother, Jill, told me a few years ago. 

Unlike most juniors, Kennedy didn’t start to play the game until she was 10. Before her teens, she was a budding athlete and very good junior runner. She had been the fastest under-12 girl in the UK for 1200 metres, won the London Mini Marathon and also trained alongside Dina Asher-Smith at Blackheath & Bromley Harriers. 

Georgina Kennedy celebrates a victory

Her dream was to follow her idol, Kelly Holmes. But a heal issue (plantar fasciitis) kept her off the track, although it didn’t seem to affect her squash. Rather than a one-sport focus, the access to a range of sports has paid dividends. 

She stood out at Crystal Palace FC as a talented junior, Rounders England were keen on her, while she was also scouted by Kent Cricket. Squash, thankfully, became a main focus as she accumulated an array of junior titles.

Yet, becoming a squash pro was still far from her mind when she picked Harvard University for her psychology degree. Returning to the UK as the pandemic hit in 2020, few could have predicted how the next two years would unravel as she finished the summer as Commonwealth champion, the first Englishwoman to win the women’s title. 

Here, we chart her rise from teen to major title winner.

The coach: Mutual trust

Former professional Ben Ford and Kennedy have been together for over 15 years. “From day one we clicked,” he says. “Most 11-year-olds go on court and do what they are told to do. Gina was just asking questions. The mutual trust has been both ways ever since.”

Ford says that Kennedy isn’t a natural squash player, but is a natural athlete. His honesty comes to the fore when he also admits that he was slow in improving her as a player. He says: “She has done really well by being tenacious. As a junior, it was about beating the people in front of her rather than improving her game for a long time.”

This worked – she won multiple championships – and once she finished at Harvard, it was, says Ford, a case of improving her technique. “She has a lot more to improve on which is great news,” adds Ford. 

“Mentally she has been nervous before and during matches. Fitness will never be an issue and she will never lose a squash match through being tired.”

Ford gives an example of how he would tell his charge in between games to hit straight off the backhand and she would do the complete opposite. “She was so nervous and couldn’t concentrate. Now her thought process is so much better.”

When the two are on court, their sessions are also never about fitness. “It’s nearly impossible to make her tired,” admits Ford. “It’s a great backup plan to have, to wear the opponent down, but that’s not how she wants to play.”

The squash mum: The drive comes from Gina

“I’m not a classic squash mum,” says Kennedy’s mother, Jill. “I am the total opposite of Gina, who is a natural sportsperson.”

As such, there was never any drive from the Kennedys. “It’s got to be passion led by the child. We never forced her to go to anything,” says Jill. “It was always Gina saying, ‘Come on, I’m ready!’ She’s been the driving force.”

Jill believes that her daughter wouldn’t have become professional or reached the top 10 (a high of world no.8 in July), if she hadn’t gone to Harvard. “It wasn’t until the second year where her focus changed,” adds Jill. 

This was confirmed when Jill got Gina six weeks work at her workplace, with biomedical research outfit Francis Crick Institute. “She didn’t like the routine of sitting down all day. She couldn’t wait to leave and go training, She knew then that a 9-5 job wasn’t for her.”

Jill has seen the drive first hand. “She loves the life, the routine and is very focused,” she adds. “Ben has been massively important. It’s a strong relationship that goes beyond the normal coach-student relationships.”

Jill may not have the squash nous, but does know one thing. “She is older coming on to the scene and she isn’t the finished article yet.”

The off-court challenges

Kennedy has suffered from an ongoing stomach disorder ulcerative colitis, a chronic inflammatory bowel condition. She was first diagnosed following the first year of her psychology degree at Harvard University, although a mix of steroids and infusions kept the worst of the condition at bay.

She lifted the Commonwealth single’s title but was forced to take time off tour to see to her health. “It’s improved, but ever since then I haven’t had more than a month where I’ve been in complete remission,” she told The Telegraph in a recent interview. “It will just flare up. Not to the point where I can’t get out of bed, but to the point where I can’t go on a walk because I’m so anxious about where a toilet will be.”

She notes that the condition can be a mental and physical toll, alongside the demands of a touring pro’s life. It hampers training.

“One of the main things of being at the top is consistency and, although sometimes I’m not able to do my best in training, over the course of a few years I think it will even itself out. If I can’t get to world No 1, I don’t think colitis will be the reason.”

The fitness: A special kind of athlete

When the pandemic hit, she came back with two months to complete of her college course. She trained on her own – she even popped out for a 5km sub 17 minute run during lockdown – and started playing small satellite events with no ranking. She rose from World No. 185 to the top 10, a meteoric hurtle up the rankings by any professional’s standards.

Tom Cornish, director at Beckenham-based Pureform Clinic, remembers the first time he saw Kennedy as an early teen. “She had just done a spin session,” the highly-regarded physio recalls. 

“Her legs were beginning to get so powerful and I knew then that was a special kind of athlete.”

Eight years later and Cornish was telling John Blackie, Asher-Smith’s coach, to watch the Commonwealth final. “I said, ‘There’s a girl called Gina in it’. John replied, ‘I remember that name. She was an absolute rocket.’ Gina has just been memorable to any one who has come across her.”

Kennedy still trains at The Parklangley Club, where she has met Emma Raducanu and also shared the same fitness coach. On the physio front, Cornish praises Kennedy for her self-led strength and conditioning work. “She is always keen to learn and discuss new things,” he adds.

“From her endurance background she built on the track, Gina has incredible springs, start up power and speed to get off the mark which the taller girls don’t have. She has dogged determination and doesn’t seem to be intimidated.”

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