WISPA Stars Work Their Magic In Norway

21 Jun 06

"Seeing Sarah and Nicol play - and beat - the top men in our country will have a great motivational effect on our squash players, especially our young girls, who will now have the confidence to work harder and achieve greater goals in the sport in the future," said Norwegian National Coach Stig Olsen on the last day of the third and final leg of the 2006 WISPA Promo Tour to Norway.

The eighth annual promotional tour, led by Malaysia's world champion Nicol David and Australia's five-times former world champion Sarah Fitz-Gerald, is the latest initiative by the Women's International Squash Players' Association in its continuing drive to support local development of the sport and promote the women's game around the world.

After opening the Tour in Estonia, then travelling to Svalbard in northern Norway, David and Fitz-Gerald visited three clubs during their stay in Oslo - the Lysaker Club, SATS Fitness Club and Baerum Squash Club, the oldest centre in Norway. The programmes included coaching clinics, playing with seniors and juniors, playing exhibition matches and meeting the media.

Norwegian Squash Federation President Kari Lockert Lie welcomed the WISPA party at the opening press conference at the Lysaker Club, saying: "We are very honoured to have you here - our players are looking forward to seeing women power!"

One of the girls' first challengers was Inge Andersen, Secretary General of the Norwegian Olympic Committee and Confederation of Sports. Andersen, the country's former national women's cross country skiing team coach, is a new convert to squash - and played both Sarah and Nicol en-route to Oslo airport where he was flying to Rumania for a meeting of European NOC Secretary Generals.

"That was a really nice experience and a wonderful training session," said an exhausted Andersen afterwards (pictured with Fitz-Gerald). "As a cross-country ski instructor, I know how important movement is - and those girls were like leopards, it was so good to see people with such beautiful movement. But when you play people at this level, it lifts your game."

When asked what he felt the WISPA Tour brought to Norway, Andersen replied: "It is a big inspiration for our squash federation - and also for the young guys and girls to see the best players in the world and play with them. The concept is a really good idea. Sarah and Nicol are the stars of the sport and they see their role as ambassadors - which is really good."

The subject inevitably turned to the Olympic Games, and squash's campaign to become part of the programme: "I know how close you were to getting in last year - and I can understand how important it is for the sport to be in the Games. Now that I have had the chance to experience the sport at this level, I hope you are successful for 2016," concluded Andersen.

Fitz-Gerald went on to challenge reigning Norwegian men's champion Stig Kobbevik. "She was very precise - and forced me to play too many weak shots," admitted Kobbevik after his defeat. "But it was a really enjoyable experience."

Another local player to share a court with a world champion for the first time was Lotte Eriksen, Norway's brightest women's prospect who has recently joined WISPA and trains in Malmo under Swedish national coach John Milton. After a best-of-three clash with Nicol David at Lysaker, the world No 122 was treated to a full-length battle with Sarah Fitz-Gerald at Baerum Squash Club.

"It was very hard," said the 19-year-old from Stavanger. "They take the ball so early - I never seem to have time to get back to the 'T' before I'm chasing their next shot! But at least I now know what I need to work at - my length and my strength!"

"It was a great experience to work with Sarah and Nicol - I wouldn't have missed it for anything," added Eriksen, who plans to work on her fitness in Stavanger over the summer - while taking a summer job selling strawberries - before heading over to Broxbourne in England for a summer camp with John Milton.

The visit attracted local press coverage in papers including Norway's most popular newspaper Aftenposten and the TV channel Budstikka. In one Oslo newspaper, Norway's No2 junior Eline Zaborowski figured prominently. "Meeting Sarah Fitz-Gerald was a dream come true," said the 18-year-old who is also ranked No4 in the country's senior women's list.

Another youngster Amanda Aakeson travelled for six hours from Bergen to meet the WISPA stars in Oslo. "I didn't realise we would get the chance to go on court with Sarah and Nicol," said the 15-year-old. "It's been fantastic, I've learned such a lot."

When asked what the most important piece of advice she'd picked up was, Aakeson replied: "Nicol told me that the most important thing was to have fun and just do as well as you can. That's a great lesson," said the U17 No1. "I would really like to play squash full-time."

Perhaps the most enthusiastic youngster was Sigurd-Martinius Stray, a 13-year-old from Oslo better known by his friends as 'SMS'! "Playing with Sarah and Nicol was just awesome - wait till I tell my friends at school that I've played with two world champions!

"Now I can't wait to play my next opponent," said the two-times Norwegian U13 champion and reigning U15 champion. "My ambition is to be the best player in the world - but first I want to get into the top 20 in the world, then the top 10."

National Coach Stig Olsen is also the leading light behind the planned launch in September of a new squash centre in central Oslo, a seven-court facility which will feature the country's first all-glass court. "I hope that the Oslo Squash Club will become the home of future national championships and squad training - and stage events too," said the Norwegian international.

"This visit has undoubtedly kick-started a new enthusiasm for squash in the country. Looking at people's faces as they watched Sarah and Nicol, it was clear that they couldn't believe what they were seeing!"

Reidun Ribesen, the General Secretary of the Norwegian Squash Federation, was delighted with the results of the WISPA visit: "This has meant so much for squash in Norway, especially for our juniors," said the Stavanger-based Mrs Ribesen, who has run the Federation for 11 years. "We are particularly pleased with the media attention the visit has inspired. Our top national paper and TV never normally cover squash, and to do so - especially during the World Cup - has been fantastic.

"It was so good to see the reaction of our juniors, meeting Sarah and Nicol - it was like young football fans meeting someone like Ronaldinho!

"Currently the high price of most courts in the country is really restrictive for juniors," explained Ribesen. "I am now working with people in Stavanger to launch a new community squash facility which will enable kids to play free - and eventually I hope there will be more places like this in the rest of the country."

Sarah Fitz-Gerald, a veteran of five WISPA Promotional Tours, was delighted with the latest visit, and especially the news of the new club being opened in September: "Norway certainly seems to be taking a step in the right direction," said the record five-times world champion from Australia.

"I have been a part of the WISPA Tours since the idea was first conceived in 1999, when we went to Prague - and have thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to promote women's squash in countries that have not held a major event, nor seen squash at this level - and struggle to get any media attention.

"As a former player, I also enjoyed seeing the 'coming of age' of Nicol David," added Fitz-Gerald, who retired from the game over three years ago after winning more than 60 major titles including Commonwealth Games gold. "She is a talented, fun and professional young lady who handles her position with ease and a growing assurance."

Andrew Shelley, Chief Executive of WISPA, summed up the feelings of the Tour organisers: "People in marketing talk of synergy. For WISPA it is interaction. The eighth WISPA Promo Tour has again brought together a mix of great hosting, player support and a wonderful sponsor.

"We have been so well looked after - firstly in Estonia and now in Norway - by Federations that have mixed superb hospitality with great efforts to use the visit to generate maximum local interest from young and older players - and the media. In both cases, they have generated press and TV coverage that can only help them raise the profile of squash in their countries," explained the driving force behind WISPA.

"That has been achieved with the help of two wonderful ambassadors in Nicol and Sarah, who gave their time to help support the game. It is not the first time for either - but to watch them integrating with and enthusing local players, organisers and the media, is very special.

"Talking of very special, the last word must go to Tom Tarantino, a Philadelphian squash enthusiast who embraced the concept from the start and provided the sponsorship that has enabled the trips to take place each year. Without Tom, there would be no WISPA Promotional Tours.

"We thank the host countries, the players, and Tom - in perfect synergy!"