How did a world champion squash player emerge from Réunion Island?


Thierry Lincou surveys the squash court where he learned his craft. Photograph: James Willstrop

Thierry Lincou developed as a squash player in Réunion, a remote island in the Indian Ocean that has no track record of success in the sport he mastered

 • By James Willstrop for Willstrop’s World, part of the Guardian Sport Network

“Bring some sweatshirts. It’s winter here remember,” Thierry Lincou, world squash champion back in 2004, tells me the day before I travel to meet him to play an exhibition event in his homeland, Réunion Island. Forty-eight hours later he is walking me down to the beach near Saint-Pierre, on the south of the island in blazing midday heat. In thick sweatpants, still coming to after 24 hours travelling, I stumble, bleary-eyed into the fire and suggest that he may have forgotten I am English. “I thought you said it was cold! This would practically be the hottest day in England’s history.”

Twelve hours later my shoulders were burned from a day at the beach, during which we lost ourselves in conversation, reminiscing like old men about our experiences on tour. In between we swam with the gorgeous fish – fish unperturbed by human invasion to their waters.

Here I was in Réunion, a French-speaking island in the Indian Ocean, just a short stretch from Mauritius and South Africa. The terrain steadily slopes upwards towards huge volcanoes that stand ominously as visual centrepieces of the island. From the seafront you can glance inland to capture the captivating view.

Thierry was the star of the squash festivities, which consisted of a demonstration event that ran alongside the Indian Ocean Games, a multi-sport event that is competed for on the island in early August. I was glad to be asked by my former compatriot and his team of organisers to support the event.

Thierry retired from the game a few years ago. You wouldn’t know it to look at him. He’s in great shape and still manages to tuck me up on the court most times we play, as he did in the final of the event here. There’s nothing like a good pre-season confidence booster, that’s what I say.



Away from the court Thierry gave me a tour of his local haunts. We swam, caught too much sun, ate samosas – takeaway food stalls win over French brasseries here – and sat on rocks looking out to sea as we watched surfers. It was clear Thierry was in his element being back here. “No offence,” I exclaimed, “but how the hell did you manage to become a world champion squash player coming from here?”

Thierry always played under the banner of France, so outsiders assume he learned the sport there. But no, he lived in Réunion for most of his young, developmental years in squash, only leaving for France when he was 18. It is outrageously difficult for players, certainly in squash, to come from countries with no system or track record. You don’t suddenly see countries materialising in sports at which they have never previously excelled. It would be difficult for Russia to suddenly become world beaters at cricket. There is no background, no history, no system.


In squash one player is currently materialising in Peru. The world junior champion, Diego Elías, is an outstanding prospect, but Peru have been relatively non-existent in world squash up until his first conjuring. It’s a stunning achievement already.

Thierry took me along to see the club where he played as a kid, where he carved out his future career. He called it a squash club but behind the padlocked door was just an old, abandoned barn that was completely caked in bird shit. There were two bits of “space” that could have passed as squash courts. Some lines were almost visible but prison walls would have made better playing areas. There were remnants of an old club shop that once existed and there was an old advertising poster of Thierry.

He hadn’t been in the place for years and was clearly excited to see it. He described to me, as I stood rapt, the atmosphere of the club that existed all those years ago. It must have been a harsh reminder what time can do as he remembered his training sessions and club nights with the fellow members and players. The interior was completely overrun with cobwebs and the clocks had stopped as the whole entity was left to fester. I almost expected some sort of Réunion Island version of Miss Havisham to appear in a wheelchair to welcome her Pip back.

I knew how much work it took for me to reach high levels in the game, and while I didn’t exactly train in palatial facilities as a kid, I had a decent and welcoming club to go to, a family who were involved in the game, and in my dad I had an expert coach from whom to learn. There were a gaggle of young players to train and compete with and in England we had role models to emulate and copy. In other words, the opportunities, facilities and inspiration were there. It helped.


Thierry worked with a blank canvas. Only incredibly modest facilities were available to him, with no state of the art gyms in sight and no coaching expertise to bounce off. But maybe that’s enough. Thierry proved that you don’t necessarily need all this and you certainly don’t need money. You just can’t buy excellence, which in this age of fads and quick fixes is gratifying. Thierry told me how he would come down to the courts and train, and he said he had the foresight to train hard. I wondered how on earth he would have done it in this barn? “There were less cobwebs then!”

He was advised to move to France to join the French squads when he was 14 but he said no. People in Réunion and France justifiably thought that his advancement would then falter. I don’t blame them. I can’t stress enough how much the structures, systems and junior tournament play supported me and helped me to keep improving and eventually make it into the professional ranks. Thierry eventually moved to France when he was 18.

We’ve heard of stories before like this. The Williams sisters spent some formative years on public courts which apparently had potholes and sometimes no nets. Last month Julius Yego became the first Kenyan to win a gold medal in the javelin, having coached himself in the beginning by watching YouTube videos. It’s an unlikely story of success and is even more amazing when you think that Kenyan field athletes hardly exist. He was their only one at the London Olympics in 2012. These people prove that excellence in sport is less about means and resources and more about inclination.

Thierry is an inspirational athlete, perhaps unknown to many readers around the world. God knows, he was hardly even acknowledged in Saint-Pierre as we strode down the beach, me sweating in my heavy clothes. I thought it quite sad that he has done something so extraordinary on this small island and yet nobody knows to celebrate him. I can’t imagine that Réunion has too many world champions. Walking along that beach he was just another local. It’s probably the way he likes it.