Yesterdays / Better than all the rest…

Heather McKay pictured in 1980 by Ern McQuillan. Image: National Portrait Gallery

AUSTRALIA’S greatest sportsperson? While the first thought might be Bradman or Thorpie, it’s a “Queanbeyan girl” who can lay as much claim to that title.

Seventy-seven-year-old Heather McKay AO, MBE, has just been declared the #2 GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) of female squash players in a fans’ poll conducted by the Professional Squash Association (PSA) World Tour.

The positioning is controversial given she’s the most successful player in the history of the game: 14 Australian amateur titles, 16 British Opens, the first Women’s World Champion, and 19 years undefeated in competitive squash.

Heather, who continues to live locally, was surprised to learn of the vote – and also the result, her competitive nature clearly undiminished.

“I’m very keen to hear who the #1 might be. It is disappointing, but such a poll is of course a totally different thing to official, traditional rankings,” she said.

“The #1 male player will inevitably be Jahangir Khan, with six World Opens and 10 British Open titles, and he was extraordinary.”

As it is, Heather’s sporting dominance wasn’t confined to the squash court.

Twice chosen for the Australian hockey team, squash commitments meant she was unavailable for selection. In addition, Heather would go on to become the world number one in both racquetball and Masters tennis.

Growing up a Blundell – a name most Canberrans recognise from a tiny stone cottage on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin – hers was a sporting life encouraged by good-natured family competition in almost anything where a ball was involved.

Still calling Queanbeyan home… international squash legend Heather McKay. Photo by Nichole Overall

“It was a great place to grow up and sport was a huge part of our family’s life. Even my Aunt Lily, who if she were still alive would now be well over 100, played cricket and hockey against England!”

The young athlete shone early, excelling at tennis and hockey before going on to win her first squash titles with little formal coaching or instruction. Less than a year later she took out the NSW Country Junior and Women’s Championship.

By 1962 Heather had won her second Australian title and the “Wimbledon” of squash, the British Championships, were beckoning. Unsurprisingly, money was in short supply. A justifiably proud Queanbeyan rallied, raising funds with the NSW and Australian Women’s Squash Association to help the rising star on her way.

Going pro in the mid-1970s, with husband Brian, also an accomplished squash player, they moved to Canada to work at the Toronto Squash Club.

After achieving stats it’s suggested will never be beaten, at 38, Heather decided the game was up – although not her sporting contribution, turning to racquetball, a somewhat less-strenuous game with a shorter racquet and a larger, bouncier ball.

Almost immediately she became the American Amateur Racquetball Champion going on to win the American Professionals three times and the Canadian Championship an extraordinary five times. In 1997 she was inducted into the US Racquetball Hall of Fame, an honour she describes as a “fantastic surprise”.

Eighties World Racquetball Champion Lynn Adams was most appreciative of her one-time opponent’s extraordinary skills: “Remembering that Heather was nearly 40 when she took up racquetball, she was probably the greatest woman player ever.”

The list of awards is long, among them: the 1967 ABC Sports Award, the Australian Sports Medal and she was among the first of a very select few to achieve “the most prestigious sporting honour that can be bestowed on an Australian”, elevated to a Legend of Australian Sport in the Sport Australia Hall of Fame.

The most personally significant award for the sports star was her induction into the renowned International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame in New York in 2003.

“To be recognised throughout the world as one of the top women sports people internationally was indeed a pleasure,” she says modestly.

Heather suggests the reasons for her impressive results and longevity was a combination of “being very fit with good hand-eye co-ordination and very good genes,” but acknowledges attaining such a level of achievement across so many sports is highly unusual.

“Squash, racquetball and tennis all involve a racquet but they are three very different sports and require an entirely different set of skills, so to pick up something new and come back to another after 30 years is quite something I suppose. I have always liked to challenge myself though,” she said.

A champion performer in four sporting arenas makes her entirely deserving of the praise offered by Peter Meares in his 2003 book on national sporting stars: “In spite of her staggering achievements, she is gracious and humble. She remains one of our most inspirational legends of Australian sport.”

In my, albeit biased, view, Heather McKay will always be the GOAT.

Items from Heather McKay’s career can be seen at the Queanbeyan Sporting Gallery, in The Q-One Indoor Sports Centre, Yass Road. Some of them also feature in Queanbeyan’s upcoming “180 Mementos | 180 Years” exhibition, September 28-October 14.

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