While trying to digest both the triple chocolate mousse and the multiple French conversations around me during one of my final extended family dinners with Jacques, Jacques' cousin Nathalie, visiting from the island of New Caledonia, brought over her laptop and pulled up Google Earth. After a dozen zooms over the South Pacific Ocean, we found a sliver of land that is the island of New Caledonia, and when Nathalie urged me in broken English to stop and play there on my way to Australia, I said that sounded like a good idea to me and we continued to finish off the mousse.
And so a couple weeks later I began the month of August living with a French culinary instructor and her husband, the skydiving world champion of 1990, along with their two teenage kids, four cats, and pet rabbit on the top of a hill of a town called Plum, on a French colony in between Australia and Fiji.
A few days in, I rolled my ankle while training. I hadn't prepared for what to do when you're living with a French speaking family on an island and can't move. And so we improvised. They gave me a cane. I rehabbed in a pool. Tried teaching the family English and tried teaching myself Spanish. Described life in the States to teenagers who haven't been and had never met an American. Watched family home videos, went to the country fair and to the beach, ate crepes for dinner on Sundays because Sunday night is crepe night. Kept icing the ankle, rehabbing, slowly getting better. Extended my stay. If Seinfeld was a show about nothing, my time in Plum was a visit about nothing. It was hard to leave.
Landing back in Australia, an eight hour drive from Sydney along the dry Australian outback gets you to Shepparton, Australia, which isn't exactly a tourist hub. Returning from Plum, the first of my three Australian pro events was held here in Shepp (as the locals call it), where I roomed with a Malaysian and a Brit in the town motel with cows roaming out back. At the local Italian restaurant, I sat under a portrait of Elvis that the King himself may have hung there back in the day. In the vintage squash club situated next to Mum's Kitchen Diner off the main drag, I managed to squeak by a crafty Pakistani to make my first ever main draw round of 16 in a pro event.
After Shepp, I spent the second half of August surfing the couch of my Santa Barbara childhood buddy Adam, who was moved out to Sydney by his tech company, Dropbox, a few months ago to help start their Asia-Pacific office. He gladly shared his space, I tried cooking us up dinners in return, and we picked up where we left off when we both went our separate ways for college seven years ago. Bike sprints and circuit training in the basement of the Willoughby Squash Club became my routine, as did regular treks through the Paul Fitzgerald Pharmacy and down the stairs, past the shed and into the converted garage for ankle strengthening at Yogatime in Bondi Beach. In the latest world rankings I'm up to #243, up from #289 when I left Boston in June, and for now the 5th highest American playing on the tour. Will get much tougher to climb going forward but I am excited to make it this far.
In the New South Wales Open, I ran into a familiar face from San Diego six years ago: Reyna Pacheco, now a rising junior at Columbia and the first alumni of a US urban squash enrichment program to give the women's pro squash tour a try. Reyna represents all that is possible with urban squash in the US and for the weekend, it felt good to have an American teammate (and fellow Californian!) on the road.
To get to the final tour event in the sleepy beach town of Coffs Harbor, Australia, I hitched one last six hour ride with Darcy Evans, a nineteen year old pro around my ranking, currently balancing three different part time gigs in order to give the pro tour a shot. The host venue was once a bird aviary and greenhouse before being converted to a squash center, and today it continues to be multi-purpose: I gladly accepted the offer to bunk up with a trio of French players and the Brit in beds below the courts for $25 a night, including breakfast.
In last few days of August, I met up with a new Aussie friend and we started driving south through the Sydney rain, with no plans, no destination. We stopped off toward the end of the day at a winery and alpaca farm near a tiny town called Berry. Walking in near closing, we were greeted with drinks by the owner, Raj. At one point Raj was a corporate bigwig but gave it up to start this place. He was a squash fanatic and before we left, gave me a signed bottle to open sometime later on: "To Mike, now that you're #1 in the world, here's something to open in case you become #2."
As the car wound it's way back to Sydney the next night, closing out a wonderfully random weekend and capping off the last hours of a wonderfully random month, my phone lit up with an email from Raj. It was short- he wished me luck, and then signed off with this quote:
"How do you get there? Take a step at a time. Have a rest sometimes. That's how you get there"