Such is her long list of sporting accomplishments, Heather McKay concedes that she had to go to a website the other day to remind herself of her achievements in tennis.
The website heralds her considerable feats in four sports: squash, tennis, racquetball and hockey. But tennis is her passion these days, playing socially four times a week with the social aspect just as appealing as the competition.
Says Heather: “Before COVID I was playing local tournaments and the odd Australian championship. When I go to tournaments, though, part of it is social.”
As we sit alongside the Reid Tennis Club courts, at 79 years of age, Heather still looks as fit as she did decades earlier.
I remember her dominance on the squash courts, but her accomplishments across all four sports are incredible: 16 British Open Squash titles in a row; two World Squash Championships; 14 straight Australian Squash titles, only losing two games in her career; an individual World title in seniors tennis; three US Racquetball Championships; selection in the All Australian hockey team, twice; and the list goes on.
What is even more remarkable with squash is that she didn’t start playing until she was 18 years old as a way of keeping fit for hockey.
“When I had just turned 18, some of us from the Evergreens Hockey Club decided we would take a permanent booking at the Squash Bowl in Civic,” Heather says.
From that moment on, Heather was hooked and went on to win tournament after tournament after tournament.
Sport was always a big part of her life growing up.
“I lived for sport,” says Heather. “I came from a sporting family, and we were always encouraged to play sport. We were never made to play.”
Heather was one of 11 children living at Pound Hill in Queanbeyan. Her father was a champion rugby league player, as well as being a baker and a market gardener, while her mother was a stay-at-home mum.
With 10 other siblings, there was always somebody to team up with for whatever game was on offer.
At Queanbeyan Intermediate High School, hockey became a focus and Heather eventually went on to play for NSW and was selected in the All Australian team. But she didn’t end up playing hockey for her country because, by this time, squash had taken over.
It was still very much in the era of amateur sport though and the costs associated with competing, particularly when requiring overseas travel, were high. And the cost was not only in dollar terms, it also was time-consuming. For example, Heather had to take two months off work to go to the British Open. And remember, she played in – and won – the British Open every year from 1962 through to 1977.
Because of her amateur status, community fundraising was the backbone of support. Fundraising was channelled through the Squash Association and the Association would use the funds to support Heather by paying for airfares and also providing a stipend when she was competing.
Heather retired at 38 years of age as the greatest women’s squash player of all time. Having lost only two games in her career, those two matches remain solid in her memory. The first loss was in just her second tournament while the second was at the Scottish Open in the lead up to her first British Open.
By the time she retired, she had moved to Canada with her husband Brian. Sport remained front and centre in their lives.
During this time she won the Canadian racquetball title five times, three US pro titles and a US Open title.
Heather says, “I got into racquetball because I needed something else to do. I did more than I expected to do because I didn’t start playing until I was 38 years old”.
On returning to Australia she took on the role of assistant AIS coach for squash in Brisbane for 13 years, alongside Geoff Hunt.
Today, though, tennis her sport of choice, and in the senior ranks, Heather has won world titles as an individual and as part of a team.
She returned to live in Queanbeyan a couple of years ago following Brian’s death in 2018.
“I lost my husband, and the house in Watson was getting too much for me, and I have five siblings in Queanbeyan. So rather than travel in and out all the time, I thought I’d go back.”
In Queanbeyan, there is a constant reminder of her achievements with an indoor sports facility named in her honour. Her name’s also etched on the city’s honour walk.
There is also the possibility that her list of sporting achievements may continue to grow given her prominence in seniors tennis. These days though, Heather really does appreciate the social side of playing, and tennis remains a perfect vehicle to enjoy both people and the sport.