After being confined to their home country for four months during the global COVID-19 pandemic, a number of Colombian squash players have been able to travel to Spain to step up their return to action.
Led by former World No.38 Martin Knight – the Colombian National Coach – six of Colombia’s leading players headed to Barcelona to start a two-month training programme at the Barcelona Global Squash Academy (BGS).
Knight has kept in touch with all of his charges during the pandemic-enforced lockdown, but says that there is no substitution for the hands-on work he is able to do with the players on-court.
“The quarantine in Colombia has been pretty long, I believe one of the longest,” said Knight.
“We were confined to our apartments for about 12 weeks, then they loosened it a little and exercise was allowed for up to two hours a day. That has now also been taken away again, and full quarantine is happening in parts of the city. Travel is obviously fantastic, but more than that, just being able to be outside, go to a restaurant or cafe, a public place, all things we are used to taking for granted are becoming small pleasures again. The freedom is amazing.
“It was a strange period, as a coach we are pretty active, the skillset is tied to the squash court and that is where we are of most use to our teams. Not being on court was hard as I love coaching and being around the courts. We did what we could, we did physical training via Zoom every day, apart from Sundays, and that was great. It was good for the team, the motivation and the connection between everyone. But it doesn’t replace the time on court. I was counting the time to get back on court again.
“We have just arrived in Barcelona, and the day we got here, the Catalan government closed the majority of sports clubs and gyms in Barcelona. So we had to make some immediate changes to the plan. One of the clubs, Metropolitan, remains open and Victor [Montserrat] and the BGS have been kind enough to accommodate us here for two weeks in and around their training.
“The first goal is to get used to the courts again, hitting, moving and very general squash. We will do that for probably a couple of weeks minimum. The players haven’t been on court for four months, it’s a long time. From there, I will be individualising the plan for each player and splitting the time between individual and group sessions.”
The original plan for the Colombian delegation was to head to Prague in Czech Republic to take advantage of the facilities on offer, but last-minute complications thrown up as a result of the pandemic put their travel plans in disarray.
“Obviously here in Barcelona there is good squash and established programmes, however the original plan was to go to Prague, but the Czech Republic closed its borders to all non-EU countries apart from a list of 14, and Colombia is not on that list,” continued Knight.
“The airport in Colombia is currently closed, so we took a humanitarian flight designed for the Colombian Tour de France cyclists that arrived in Madrid. From there, the easiest thing was not to cross another international border. We already had the paperwork and logistics planned out and Barcelona then became a great option.”
Knight took up his role with Colombia in 2017 following his retirement from the professional game and the 11-time pro title winner has had a big impact on the players according to World No.142 Edgar Ramirez Bautista, who travelled to Spain alongside Andres Herrera, Andres Villamizar, Juan Jose Torres, Nicolas Serna and Luis Alejandro Mancilla .
“I think that Martin changed the mentality of Colombian squash a lot, making us understand in the case of the national team that if we join as a team, we enhance the level of each player,” Ramirez said.
“For me, he has been the best coach I have had in my sports career. The changes in my mental approach in my game have been gigantic. I feel that having a coach who has had a great career as a player helps a lot to share us our experience.
“[During lockdown] We worked with Martin through Zoom, we were training from Monday to Saturday and we had a fitness plan since the work changes a lot depending on the space and the materials that everyone had at home. I think that group work helped us to stay motivated since, despite not all working in the same place, seeing others training and accompanying us in some way helped make the virtual training easier.”
“In these first weeks [in Barcelona] we will be getting used to training on court and to having the same routine as before because the body has lost a lot in these four months. The first time we returned to courts it cost us a lot, we felt very lost and it was difficult. In general, we have the opportunity to work out the fitness with the BGS fitness trainer and we want to learn as much as we can from her.
“I think it is a little easier that Martin has travelled with us since he knows our weaknesses and strengths. Each player has certain specific objectives to improve in these months that we will be here in Barcelona. We will also be taking advantage of the players who are in the academy who have different types of games and at some point we will play some games with them to get that feeling back again.”
Ramirez – who has appeared in two professional finals – is delighted to get back to some form of normality after a difficult few months in which life in Colombia, like in other countries around the world, was drastically altered by the pandemic.
“It was too complicated a situation to see that everything closed and that our normal life changed,” the 25-year-old said.
“I think it was the hardest since in Colombia we already had four months in quarantine and we still do not see the opportunity to open squash courts for training, despite the fact that we were accompanied by our coach. Not having tournaments and not knowing when they will return means it is difficult to have a goal in the year.
“You also have the uncertainty of not knowing what will happen in the year and being worried that your whole family or close people are in good health.
“I feel very grateful to have that opportunity to be able to travel during the quarantine, it motivates you to continue training hard, I think it is a unique opportunity which we must take advantage of to learn as much as we can from this experience. When I arrived in Barcelona, I couldn’t believe I was traveling to play squash again, only the best athletes in the country had the opportunity.
“It is because of the great work of the federation, Sergio Becerra [Federación Colombiana de Squash President], who was the one who helped us to have the opportunity to travel on this flight, and also the sports ministry carried out this flight so that the athletes of Colombia have the opportunity to recover a little normality compared to the difficult situation we have lived in.”