When nine-year old Low Wee Wern picked up the squash racquet for the first time, little did she know that her life was about to change forever.
What started out as a casual weekend practice progressed into an intense 6-days-a-week training, and before she knew it she was representing her home state Penang and Malaysia in various tournaments and championships, both local and international, all before she was even 12.
She decided to take the leap of faith and go down the professional route at 17. With utter determination and handwork, she rose to stardom and was raking in medals, awards and recognitions.
As fate would have it, a tear in her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) back in April last year forced her to take a one-year hiatus. She has to undergo at least three surgeries before she could get back into action, but she will not let that dampen her spirit.
We recently caught up with 26-year old who is in KL for her rehabilitation period, and she talks about her surgery, her relationship with coach Aaron Soyza, and struggles as a female athlete.
FO: Wee Wern, first of all, tell us about your ACL injury. What happened? How has the entire surgery and recovery process been for you?
To be honest, I never thought I was ever going to need any surgery, but now I need three! It’s one of those things where you’re just like, “Ah, it’s not going to happen to me,” or “I’m not going to need surgery,”. I’m fairly fit and strong, I train well, so it was quite frustrating.
I had to undergo surgery for my anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), because it just went missing. I have no clue where my ACL went. Just before I was supposed to fly to France for a championship, I had to do a routine MRI. I had just gotten back after winning a tournament, I was up to 23rd in the world, came back, did the MRI, and the surgeon could not find the ACL. Basically, I played for months without the ACL. And I won tournaments without the ACL.
So I had to fly to London for surgery. I’ve had two ops so far, the third one will be in April. I was on crutches just a few weeks back, and it was really tough. I couldn’t go shopping, I could push a shopping cart, I couldn’t carry bags. In fact, when I was in my apartment, I made coffee, and I couldn’t even get it to the couch, because both my hands were on the crutches. But I won’t give up, I’ll be back.
FO: Let’s go back in time for a bit. Could you briefly explain the path you’ve been on since you were a kid. Where and how did you start playing?
I started squash when I was eight, but it more like a weekend activity. My parents divorced when I was eight, so my mom wanted me to do something on the weekends. I had two options, tennis or squash, and well, being a Malaysian, tennis wasn’t the best option, you know, because of the weather and etc, so I picked squash. But to be honest, I had no clue what it was!
FO: Did you know that squash was going to be huge part of your life?
No, I wasn’t one of those kids who knew what they wanted to be when they were just eight or nine. I never had this one thing in mind, and I didn’t even know I was going to venture into sports.
FO: How did you break into the national scene and when did you make it big internationally?
I started representing Penang and Malaysia at the age of 11, playing in tournaments and championships. It was a gradual process, from once a week, I started training twice a week, and before I knew it I was training up to six days a week, and I was only 10. My first coach was actually Lianne David, who is Nicol’s sister!
When I was 12, I moved on to Aaron Soyza, who has been my coach ever since. I decided to go pro at 17.
FO: You’ve been training with Aaron for a long, long time. Tell us about your journey and relationship with him.
Well, not many people have trained with the same coach their whole lives. I’m one of the very very few who stayed on with the same coach since I was 12, until now.
Aaron used to pick me up from school to go to the squash court, because I had no other means of transportation. So he’d pick me up, on a daily basis, take me to the squash court, and train me.
That’s why whenever people ask me, “you’re already injured, why don’t you just give up,” and I’m like, it’s not just about me anymore. It’s about all the sacrifices my mom has made, it’s Aaron’s career on the line, so I can’t just walk away.
Especially for Aaron, he has never coached a professional player in his life. People told him he couldn’t do it, people told me he wasn’t good enough, no one believed that a local coach could train a professional athlete. But hey, look where I am today!
So when I was 17, we took the plunge together, I decided to go pro, with him. He’s incredible as a coach. He trains me twice every day, goes to the gym at 9 am with me, runs with me, does the weights with me. Whether it’s a Saturday, Sunday, or even public holidays, he’s always there for me.
FO: What has been the best part about training with Aaron Soyza?
The most incredible part about this is that I’m the only locally-trained athlete who has made it to the top 10 ranking in the world!
FO: You had to turn down prestigious universities to go pro in squash. Was your mom okay with you forgoing your studies for squash?
I’m not from a well-to-do family, my mom was even willing to mortgage the house so I can go study overseas. But at that point, I felt like it will be better for me to concentrate on squash. I felt like it would be more productive to play squash for next 4 years, compared to going to a college and getting a degree.
Not saying that education is not important, it is, but at that time, the right choice for me was squash.
FO: Your achievements are absolutely astounding, but what are the sort of sacrifices you had to make to ensure it all worked out?
As an athlete, you don’t have much of a social life. Like I said, at the age of 10 I was already training six days a week, so after school I’d head straight to the squash court for training. And then I’d do my homework while waiting for my mom to pick me up. There’s no going out with friends, movies, birthdays.
I’ve also always been a goal-oriented person. Even now when I’m out with my friends, I’m back by 11 pm so I can get enough rest and focus on my training sessions the next day.
FO: Was it always tricky for you, trying to break into the sports industry as a female?
In squash, it’s actually not that bad because Nicol David has been leading the sport. She’s been the face of squash for a very long time. In fact, in Malaysia, I think women are given more priority than men, but only in squash.
The tricky part is, for men, working out and going to the gym twice a day is normal. But when I tell people I go to gym twice a day, they’re like “Are you serious? You go to the gym TWICE A DAY?” So it’s those kinds of things.
FO: What are the examples of discrimination you faced as a female athlete?
The discrimination we face is mostly in terms of prize money. It’s a cause that we (female squash players) have been fighting for a very long time. But, Malaysia is actually better off than most countries. Only the United States have done something about it – they recently made a pledge to pay female athletes as much as they pay male athletes. For example, at some world championships, the prize money for men would be USD 300,000 but for women, it’ll only be USD 100,000.
Another thing is, we always get asked when we’re getting married. There’s still that idea that as a woman, you’re not complete until you settle down, get married and have kids.
FO: What are the steps you’ve taken to combat these forms of sexism?
Mostly by deciding not to play in the tournament, unless they offer equal prize money for both male and female categories. I think giving sports more coverage can also help to make it a norm for people to allow their daughters to get into sports.
FO: Do you think sexism continues to plague the industry today? Perhaps in the form of wage-gap? Or disproportionate endorsement figures from big brands?
I think when it comes to endorsements and sponsorships, it’s not a big thing in Malaysia, be it for male or female athletes. This is something that the whole of Malaysia could work on. Wage problems, I wouldn’t say it depends on male or female, but rather the sport itself. Some sports organisations have more money than others, so they can pay their athletes better.
FO: Do you have any bizarre pre-game ritual?
I need to have coffee two hours before a major game. Some people can’t, but I love it.
FO: Tell us something that most people don’t know about you.
I’ve had this pillow since I was a baby, and I never leave home without it! I just can’t, even if it’s a super-short trip, I’ll still bring it with me.
Good luck Wee Wern, wishing you a speedy recovery and hope you come back stronger than ever!