Bedfordshire to Barbados
I first fell in love with Barbados when I visited on holiday in 1985. I was only 13 but felt an immediate connection with the island. I visited several more times, once to play in the Barbados Open tournament and other times just for a holiday (which always included lots of squash of course!). In 2000 an opportunity came up for me to coach in Barbados. I was a firefighter at the time so applied for a 6 month career break, said goodbye to my family and friends and got on a plane for the 4000 mile journey to Barbados. I arrived in the middle of the rainy season much to the delight of the mosquitoes! I could hardly believe that I was living on a Caribbean island doing what I loved more than anything else in the world. The beach was less than 5 minutes from the courts so many a day was spent between the two. A ‘sea bath’ became the norm after a hard match or a day’s coaching. Anyone who has been to the Caribbean will know how warm and friendly people are so it was easy to fit into this new way of life. As well as coaching I started to play and train a lot more. I won my first National title in 2001 and in fact went on to win it 15 straight times. After 2 years of living in Barbados (I knew from early on that it was unlikely I would be going back to England) I was eligible to represent Barbados. So in August of 2002 at the age of 30 I made my debut on the Barbados team as we headed off to Trinidad to play in the Southern Carribean champs!
Check out the countries that compete!!
The format was Individuals first, then teams which includes Men’s, Women’s and Veteran’s. Despite squash being an individual sport, playing as part of a team has always been something I have loved. Well team squash in the Caribbean was like nothing I had ever experienced before. Let’s start with the noise…..drums, whistles, steel pans, people screaming out their support….I loved it! At times the referees could hardly make themselves heard. Carnival is very important in the Caribbean and this was carnival at the squash courts. Very hard to recreate in words, it’s really something you have to experience yourself. I was seeded number 2 in the Individuals with Nicolette Fernandes of Guyana seeded 1. I remember knocking up in the final and being quite overwhelmed by the noise of the crowd, it was quite surreal. After starting
nervously and going 7-1 down in the first game I managed to come back and win 10-8 and then went on to win the match 3-0. It was not easy by any means and at 19 years old I knew Nicolette was going to a force to be reckoned with in the future. This turned out to be one of my few wins against Nicolette who went on to reach #19 in the World Rankings.
This is Karen coming off court after beating Nicolette 3-0.
The most humbling part of this experience was the support that I received from the crowd. Here I was, an English woman playing for Barbados, and I was accepted and embraced not only by my team mates but the other countries too. Another one of the many reasons that the Caribbean is so special. Next up was the Team event and for the next 5 days matches were played from morning to night with everyone vying for that number one spot. The camaraderie was like nothing I had seen before. On the rare occasion that you or your country weren’t playing you were inevitably at the courts cheering someone else on. It was highly competitive on the court but there was plenty of liming (a West Indian word for hanging out) off. Cards and dominoes in the hotel corridors were the norm and nobody cared which country you were from! Arch rivals on the court were best friends off. It really wasn’t like anything I had experienced before and I loved it. At 30 years old my passion for this sport that I had played for the past 20 years had just grown to another level. The Barbados Ladies played against Guyana in the finals and pulled off the most amazing 5-0 victory. It was a match that could have gone either way but the girls just came out and gave it their all that day. As well as playing on the team I had also coached them and I have never been more proud. So in my first tournament representing Barbados I had won the Individual event, been a part of the winning Women’s Team and to top it all off Barbados also became Overall Champions. As hard as Caribbean people know how to compete, their partying skills go to a whole different level!!! After 8 days of giving everything on the squash court it was time to blow off some steam….apparently tired aching bodies can still dance the night away….. probably helped by the rum!!