|Samantha Cornett, Canadian professional squash player|
These women are not the only ones fighting hard to be the best they can be. Last month I was in Southampton, NY, for a mixed doubles squash event. It was part of the Hampton Squash Week and there were WSA women playing a professional tournament at the club at the same time (side note: the club is great and was generously funded by local businessmen who care about the future of the sport). Whilst there I was fortunate enough to get to meet many of the best women on the WSA world tour, most of whom are in the qualifying draws for the next two big events mentioned above. One of these women was the top Canadian squash player, Samantha Cornett.
Sam is based in Toronto and is just starting out her squash career. She is first in line to earn a spot in the US Open qualifying draw if someone pulls out, so we may just see her in action in Philly. She is young and enthusiastic and this is just the beginning for her. I am sure she will continue to move up in the rankings and will become a fixture at the US Open in future, as well as at the Tournament of Champions. Below are some questions I posed to her after the tournament, which she could not have answered any better.
BE: This year you beat the Canadian National Champ Miranda Ranieri in Montreal in May in a huge five setter. And last year you beat her in the finals of the Pan American Games individuals, too. At number thirty four in the world you are now ahead of her in WSA rankings and are the de facto Canadian number one. How does it feel to be leading the Canadian women at only 21 years old?
SC: Miranda and I have a long history on court, and we are great friends off it. To be able to challenge her in the last year has been a huge gain for me, and obviously I was very happy with those two particular results as they were at key stages of the events. The win at the Pan Am Games gave me the chance to play for the gold in the individual event, and the win in Montreal meant my third WSA tour title, both things that are dreams come true! Mir crushed me at Nationals this past May, showing everyone that she’s still got it, even as she retired and headed to optometry school! Devastating loss for Canadian squash, as we would have loved to have her lead our team in Nimes, France, for the World Women’s Teams. So as you say, now I’m leading the charge; I’m one of the older players now (?!), and I’m very happy to do it.
BE: You grew up in Deep River, Ontario. Who first got you into the game as a child?
SC: My parents introduced me to squash, they discovered it in university and found squash courts convenient to put their two daughters into while they played themselves! They are still heavily involved in my career; my mom should be getting paid for how much advice and help with my taxes she gives me, and my dad coaches me every time he can at a tournament!
BE: Now you’re in Ottawa and are now studying at York University in Toronto. What are you studying and how much squash could you really afford to play as a full time student? We assume you will be playing squash full time after college.
SC: I have no idea what I’m studying, I’ve been signing up for various courses hoping something grabs at me, since I’ve so far had no particular inclination academically. Currently I’m an undecided major in the faculty of Science and Engineering. I started at York taking classes at school, and it was ridiculous how much of my training time it ate up. The following year I took courses online, and preferred that flexibility, but struggled to get through the material to the extent that I wanted. I’d much rather watch the Malaysian Open on SquashTV than watch a lecture!! I dislike doing something and being unable to do it as best I can, so I’ve decided to not take courses for this season, and see how I feel at the end of it! I only have this body here and now, so I’m taking advantage of it.
BE: You recently started training at the brand spanking new National Squash Academy outside Toronto, I assume this has made a big positive difference to your game. Do you train with Maria Toor Pakay at all? What is it like being under the tutelage of Jonathan Power and so many other great coaches at that facility? Who are your primary coaches?
SC: The NSA is the most positive, wonderful environment. All of the coaches that help us there, Gary Waite, Jamie Hickox, Jamie Nicholls, and Jonathon Power, and our trainer Bob Bowers, are all so keen for us to improve and are so motivating every single day, which is a huge asset to the club and to all of us pros training there. And to learn from the best is obviously very exciting and inspiring. I train with Maria most days and we push one another to improve. Since we have similar goals, it is fantastic. It’s hard to find that kind of intensity with a lot of sparring partners, and I crave high intensity!
BE: On paper, you have climbed steadily in the world rankings since 2005 when you joined the women's tour as a sixteen year old and have jumped over fifty points in the rankings since the start of last year to 34 in the world currently, in the process winning three professional tournaments and doing well in many others. Your goal is to be top ten in the world, what do think it will take you to get there?
SC: I’ve got my sights set on the top 10, which is a long term goal of course. So while training, my coaches compare everything to not the people that I’m on the verge of beating, but to top ten standard. We watch Nicol’s movement, discuss Willstrop’s movement, and try to pull what we can out of it and find what works for us. For me, I believe getting there will be a process and not an overnight epiphany, unfortunately. If that comes I will accept it gladly! I know it’s going to take more combined dedication and effort than I can fathom right now, but I have to take it one step at a time or else it gets quite overwhelming. I’m trying to increase the quality of my training every day, as well as take better and better care of my body. The best motivation is Bob yelling while we do our circuits “2875!”, the number of days until the 2020 Olympics.
BE: Do you still do ten minute visualization sessions before matches? How often do you do these and can you describe the process and the perceived benefit? Your dad (your first coach) pushed you to do these when you were young even although you did not like doing them right?
SC: I don’t visualize as much as I have done in the past. My sport psychologist talked to me about being more present rather than thinking about what I have done or what I should be doing. I do take time before I play to do relaxation breathing. I find it helps me connect to my body, and it’s nice to have a routine that signals to me and my body that it’s game time. I try to think about everything that I don’t want to think about during the match, and then set it aside. I think the mental part of squash is the obvious and constant obstacle everyone faces, and if you want to succeed it can’t be ignored. My dad knew that, but as you say, it took me quite a looong time to understand, and then appreciate it... I was not the best pupil!
BE: Getting the Pan American Games team gold for Canada last year must have been a highlight for you. You will be 29 years old for the Olympics in 2020 and quite possibly at your peak as a squash player. Given your recent taste of team gold for Canada, what would it mean to you to be a part of the Olympic Games and to win a medal for your country on the ultimate stage?
SC: I don’t think anyone could describe in words what that would feel like and how much it would mean. It’s a dream. I cried every single time I watched someone win gold on tv during these past Summer Games, because I can only imagine what it’s taken them to get there and the sacrifices they’ve made and the feelings and thoughts that must be going through their brains! I was an emotional wreck and I wasn’t even there! If I had six world titles like Nicol, I don’t doubt for a second I would agree with her statement that she would trade them all for an Olympic gold. I would trade any of my titles for the chance to just compete there! The Olympic Games would mean the world to the squash community. I can feel the energy from around the world surrounding the campaign, and I feel good about it!!!
BE: You were recently at a Colorado training camp with world number one, James Willstrop. How was it training in thin air with the best player on the planet right now?
SC: I was quite nervous I wouldn’t be able to keep up, especially after the first day starting off with a huge trail run at huge altitude, and then a hit with him in the afternoon! I just wanted to make sure he got a good hit for starters. He was kind and picked drills that only mildly exhausted me. We did drop drive and I could barely get back the drops standing right at the front. Ought to have paid him for a lesson! I was extremely fortunate to get to see and play with some of the best guys, it was the absolute perfect start to summer training. Not to mention Colorado was beautiful, and Damon Brown and his wife Deb, who run the training camp, were absolutely brilliant.
BE: You list reading, music, shopping and hockey as your hobbies. One may venture to add writing to that list too, as you have a blog right? Where can one read it and what prompted you to start writing?
SC: I definitely enjoy writing, although I struggle to string two thoughts together at points! But that’s the fun part of doing blogs and squash write-ups and such; no one’s too worried about that. I don’t in fact have a blog, should probably get on that or something, I just wonder who could be bothered to read about my daily life! I tend to write when something interesting is happening, especially at tournaments, if someone is looking for a report. No one wants to know that I got bonked in the head with a med ball today in the gym and had a good little cry. That would be what I would write about today if I had a blog!
BE: This year in January you lost 13-11 in the fifth in your qualifying match for the Tournament of Champions. You came heartbreakingly close to playing on the glass court in Grand Central Station, one of the biggest world stages for the game of squash. Will you be back in action in New York next January?
SC: I can’t tell you how upset I was to miss out on a match on the court in Grand Central, but I had to suck it up and cheer on Miranda as she qualified!! I will absolutely be back, and I feel even better about this year!
BE: Given your world ranking of 34, you are very near to getting into some of the biggest tournament draws. You must know that you are at a tipping point in your career. For instance, you qualified to play in the British Open in May of this year, that must have been awesome? We hope to see you play in the US Open qualifiers in Philadelphia in October too. We understand that just one person needs to pull out and then you get in, which is quite likely to happen with such a large field. What will it mean to you to play in your first US Open?
SC: Qualifying for the British was unbelievable. I played out of my skin, and was so fired up. Definitely bummed that I made the main draw but didn’t get onto the awesome court at the O2 arena, I have to say. But onwards and upwards, just get to the next round, right? Believe it or not, it’s not my first US Open, I don’t quite know how I got into it in the past, since I’m not in it now and my ranking is miles higher than it was! Two years ago I think it was, I played in the US Open in Chicago. That had an amazing incentive to get into the main draw too, a gorgeous court on stage at Millennium Park. It would be brilliant to get into this one though, the more chances I get to play and see the top players, the happier I am! And it sounds like it’s going to be a great event.
BE: Thanks Sam for taking the time to do these interviews and for giving such great answers. We hope to see you continue moving up the world rankings and maybe even be standing on an Olympic podium someday yourself in the future.
SC: Thank you very much.