Accuse Miriam Cheng Min-chen of “playing like a girl”, and she’ll hit back with a defiant “But I am a girl!” This 12-year-old squash player has no patience for sexist goading – even if it comes from her coach. And anyway, if playing like a girl means being an accomplished squash champion who’s ranked in the top three for her age in Hong Kong ... well, it’s hardly a put-down.
You might remember Miriam’s older brother Hao-chen, who we featured last November. Like him, Miriam played tennis first, but followed her sibling when he started squash. Then, she was accepted into the Hong Kong Squash’s Young Athletes Squash Training Scheme at the Hong Kong Squash Center. Later, she was selected for the Regional Squad and she has been training intensely ever since.
Last winter, Miriam competed at the Old Chang Kee – Marigold Singapore Squash Open 2016. During her training in the run up to the tournament, Miriam had been puzzled and frustrated trying to work out how much rest her body needed in between matches.
“It was strange how my [ability] level could fall and rise at random. It was also strange how a two or three day rest would either boost my skills, or cause a drop that would take me weeks to recover from. It seemed completely out of my control.”
Even elite athletes often have pre-match rituals that they do for luck. For Miriam, that’s praying to a picture of her cat, Pocus. “I pray to him before a tournament to mentally hype myself up. He licks my nose and bestows unfathomable power upon me.”
But being match-ready also means taking into account the conditions of the courts she’ll be playing on. She knew that Singapore would be warmer than Hong Kong, meaning the balls would be bouncier. “You have to hit the ball a little bit lower to get it to die in the back,” she explains. “If you hit it as high as [you would] in Hong Kong, it bounces off the back wall, making it easier for the opponent to retrieve. So in the weeks before the tournament, I practised hitting the ball with a lower trajectory to get ready for conditions in Singapore.” Focusing on the finer details like rest and temperature paid off when Miriam was crowned champion.
“Afterwards, I was happy and relieved, and I was determined to work harder to keep up my level of squash,” she says. To not only maintain her ranking, but exceed it, Miriam will be looking up to one of the world’s best players, her role model Nicol David, who was ranked number one in women’s squash for eight consecutive years. “I want to constantly improve and make sure I don’t fall behind,” she says. “Squash is like a treadmill made of ice that gets faster and faster. There is no end to it, and it’s easy to slip off.”
What song/movie title best describes you when you’re playing your sport?
Don’t Stop Me Now – Queen.
You can take the abilities of any animal during one competition. Which do you choose and why?
I want to be a bird, so that I can fly through the court and volley the ball very early.
What’s your favourite thing to eat before a big event?
I’m usually too nervous to eat anything right before a big event. But when I travel, I love to try the local dishes, like nasi goreng in Malaysia, bakuteh and spicy crab in Singapore, and sashimi in Japan.
Which fictional character would you choose as your teammate?
I would like to have Doraemon with me when I compete, so he can provide me with tools that would help me win.
10 years in the future, you are a famous athlete. What company are you spokesperson for, and what product do you promote?
I would like to promote my school, The ISF Academy, for supporting me and promoting squash among the students.