One hundred 100-metre sprints in the space of 100 minutes. This was one of the gruelling fitness workouts that Alister Walker put himself through over the summer.
“We did every single one within a minute,” he says of the torture devised by his fitness trainer Mark Campbell, from the English Institute of Sport. “I was running on a rugby pitch in Leeds, near where I live. 18 seconds of sprinting and then 42 seconds of rest. And Mark did every single one with me.”
Ranked 12 in the world (a career high), Alister is already among the very fittest athletes on the planet. Walker by name, but sprinter by nature, you might say. He claims the first thirty 100-metre sprints he did posed him no problems. “But once you’re doing from number 30 to number 70 you find yourself in this no man’s land,” he explains, shaking his head. “At that stage the start feels like it was ages ago and the end feels even further away. Each one of those 100-metre sprints is horrible. You just can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
It’s all part of Alister’s new training regime that Campbell calls “full body rumbles”. It may explain why Alister is currently playing his best squash ever. Back in the early summer he received his first England call-up at the European Team Championships. Victory in every one of his matches helped his country win overall.
But physical fitness is just one aspect of his game. He has also been working hard on technique with his coach David Pearson. “Four years ago, when I started working with him I changed my grip, changed my technique, changed everything. Massive changes like that take a long time to come together.”
And mental improvement comes courtesy of sports psychologist Pete Lindsay, also from the English Institute of Sport. “One of Pete’s sayings is ‘ice in the mind, fire in the belly’,” says Alister. “I make sure I’m hungry to win every single point, but at the same time I’m not getting overly emotional so that it affects my decision-making or shot selection on the court. I still need to be rational during a match, be aware of how my opponent’s feeling, how I’m feeling.”
Alister is convinced the hard work he has done in psychology, technique and fitness is all now “coming together at the right time”. His career-high ranking would suggest he’s right.
It’s all a million miles away from where he first picked up the sport. When he was a little kid, growing up in Botswana, in southern Africa, it was his mother Keiterele who first introduced him to squash.
“Both my parents played,” Alister remembers. “My dad, who’s British, taught my mum, who’s Botswanan, to play. Eventually she beat him and he didn’t want anything more to do with the sport.”
Keiterele, or Patricia (“Many Botswanans have both a Botswanan name and an English name,” explains Alister) was so good at squash that she eventually became her country’s national champion. She passed on her skills to her son.
Together they used to practise at the National Squash Centre in the Botswana capital Gabarone. Despite the grand title Walker says it was a very humble structure.
“Basically it was a large, tin-roofed building with four courts that looked more like a barn than any squash club you’d find in England. The courts were a bit slippery and you’d get holes in the walls.”
But the club atmosphere compensated for the dodgy facilities. “Just like in England, squash is a very social sport out there. There were often barbecues and club events. The whole family would come along. It was a place loads of us wanted to spend time at when we were young.”
But young Alister knew he had to move abroad if he wanted to take his squash to a serious level. His father, who had moved out to Africa to teach geography (at one point he also taught rugby to a young Idi Amin in Uganda!), had strong connections with his native UK. When Alister spotted an advert in a magazine for a squash summer camp at a boarding school in the West Country, he leapt at the chance. His talent was immediately spotted and he was offered a scholarship to the school (Wycliffe College, in Gloucestershire). At the age of 15 he upped sticks and moved full-time to the UK.
“Botswana is such a small country,” he explains of his relocation. “Because it’s part of the Commonwealth, people look up to Britain in many ways. Britain was always somewhere you got excited about going to. My dad being English, I had a few uncles there. So the move wasn’t as big a culture shock as it could have been.”
Alister had dual citizenship until the age of 21, but is now a full UK national. He still has strong links to Botswana and returns there at least once a year to see his parents who now own a farm just north of the capital. “Since he’s retired my dad has got into farming,” he says. “He breeds guinea fowl, ducks, honey bees, grows a bit of
fruit and veg.”
Nowadays there’s little hint of Alister’s African past. His accent sounds more Leeds than Gabarone. He lives in the Yorkshire town of Chapel Allerton and trains at the famous racket club there. Other international-level members include Thierry Lincou, Chris Simpson, Scott Arnold, Jenny Duncalf and Fiona Moverley – all world top 100 players. Little wonder, then, that Chapel Allerton were this year’s PSA National
League champions.
Had he stayed in Botswana, there’s very little chance Alister’s game would have developed as it has done. “Before I moved to England I would always have seen myself playing for Botswana,” he says. “But unfortunately they wouldn’t have been able to fund me and provide me with what I needed. England is probably the most successful squash-playing nation in history. It was a no-brainer moving here. If I hadn’t, there’s no way I’d be where I am today.”
Issued by iSPORTmedia

A tough fitness regime is paying dividends for top English player Alister Walker. Here he discusses his recent success, and his formative years in Africa.