THE NEW WORLD OF JOHN WHITE

It was a greater loss to John White than most people ever realised when a fifth child no longer became possible. It did make him even more passionately grateful for Tyler, Keira and the twins Sam and Max, of course, because wife Suzie and one of the pair which became the third and fourth offspring nearly didn't survive the delivery.
 
But there was a void within him, left by a wandering life and his unusual multiple identity and John has seemed to fill it as though replacing the large and lively family from which he emerged in Queensland.
 
“My mother came from a home with nine or ten brothers and sisters,” he said, as if it had been too pleasantly big to know how many aunts and uncles there were.
 
“We used to see each other at Christmas. We used to always get together on a yearly basis and have a big gathering. We get together with Suzie's family,” he said carefully, slowing his words to include his gratitude.
 
“But it's not blood family. Australia's my home. Friends and family. All the friends I had as a junior, we still keep up with e-mails. Sometimes I feel I could jump in a plane and go back.”
 
It may be his distance from all this which gives him a layered and reflective expression, masking a chattiness which can turn into wonderful outpourings in which words arrive in torrents of connective emotion.
 
This makes him appear like everyman, so that sometimes you have to remind yourself this is the man who topped the Men’s World Rankings, who captured twelve World Tour titles during a decade and a half in which he criss-crossed the planet, and who became the hardest hitter of a squash ball there has been.
 
Yet these marvellous successes nearly never happened. When the Australian Institute of Sport let White go, his squash career seemed certain to flounder. But by adopting a Scottish competitive identity he craftily resurrected it; now he is evolving into coaching and administration he is developing an American identity too.
 
This triple persona has brought many of the allegations of betrayal and hypocrisy which the crossing of such boundaries tends to bring.
 
But White quietened them by becoming one of the most explosively entertaining players the game has seen, by remaining the most congenial guy you could meet, and by reminding us that the world is changing. A steady and increasing trickle of athletes and artistes are changing identities as he has done, making possible a far greater fulfilment of their talent.
 
And almost everyone likes big John White. His bio says he is six feet three, unusually tall in a sport where crouching and lunging are optimum movements, and his weight is logged as “excuse me”.
 
This sense of humour is probably essential in a big family, and for surviving the disruptions he has endured. And perhaps essential, it is unkindly alleged, when you are from Mount Isa.
 
The small Queensland town sits amidst a famously productive mining area and a forthright male ambience, something which got international attention when the mayor John Molony claimed Mount Isa's gender imbalance made it a good place for "not so attractive" women to live.
 
"With five blokes to every girl, may I suggest that beauty-disadvantaged women should proceed to Mount Isa," Molony said, conveniently exaggerating the ratio.
 
Another tongue-in-cheek description came from Pat Rafter, the tennis player, who was also brought up there and who claimed that a square was marked in rough ground outside his local pub so scores could be settled without disturbing the drinkers.
 
Greg Norman jokes about how he used to caddy for his mother, and yes, the great golfer also came from the town of a mere 25,000 which amazingly helped produce three sporting World No.1’s. Perhaps there is something special in the air as well as the ground.
 
When John White's father was taken there as a child, he made a startling journey of contrasts from dark, chilly, classical Edinburgh, to the bright, baking Aussie hinterland, before going on to become a squash centre manager in Townsville.
 
This opened a door to early excellence for his son and created the opportunity for John to make an unexpected return journey half a century later. “By playing for Scotland it got me going again,” he said. “I would not have been able to continue otherwise.
 
“It was great to be able to travel and not to be out of pocket. It's unbelievable how far the funding support from Sport Scotland went.
 
“I had a physio and masseuse. Your body is your engine and it needs to be tweaked and tuned, especially with what we put our bodies through. It helped me reach my No.1 ranking.”
 
White became Scottish National Champion, and represented his adopted land in the European Championships and the World Team Championships. Now though, as he slips into competitive retirement, his American links are stronger.
 
He has a quartet of offspring growing up as Americans, an American wife, and a job in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the home of the Amish, the religious sect which eschews the wider world and looks inwards.
 
That is something which, in a slightly different way, John may also have to do. Once the man of action and travel he now occupies his office at Franklin and Marshall college from noon till nine at night, setting squash players' programmes, fund raising, filling out forms. Does he regret the contrast?
 
“No. I was at the stage where the job came at a pretty handy time,” he said convincingly. He is thirty-five years of age. The movement hasn't lessened too much, but the ability to recuperate quickly has.
 
And his squash now? “I'm playing only one match a week. David Palmer is here but he is six hours away. Before I retired, it dropped to 75 percent of what I should have been doing.”
 
While he remains in the top 20 he may still come to World and perhaps British Opens, he said. But only a week later, at the World Open in Manchester, where he gave James Willstrop a fright before losing, he announced quite on the spur of the moment that he was retiring. Enough had suddenly and spontaneously become enough.
 
Of what is he most proud?
 
“Three things,” he said as though the answer had been well rehearsed. “Being an athlete and travelling the world and seeing sights and friendships over the years. “Then being World No.1 has to be top for anyone. Even though it was only for two or three months, I had a few tournaments where I was introduced as number one.
 
“And then my style of play. While no-one plays exhibition style when competing, that was the way I played as a junior and I have never changed it. I have changed the mental side: I am a little bit more, not basic, but patient. But flair is still there. And the crowd still yells and cheers.”
 
He missed the European Championships this year because it was the first holy communion for Tyler and Keira. It symbolised the great change in priorities.
 
These days he will join the family get-together during Catholic religious holidays. “Tyler and Keira go to religious classes every week and Suzie takes them to church every week,” he said. “I am not from a religious background. But I am there to support Suzie with whatever she does.”
 
Which is even better than the yelling and cheering, he might have said. For one day John White in his new home may feel complete.
 
By Richard Eaton

At the Hi-Tec World Squash Championships in October, John White brought to an end an illustrious playing career spanning fifteen years, during which he topped the Men’s World Rankings, captured twelve World Tour titles and became largely acknowledged as the hardest hitter of a squash ball there has been.