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Dame Susan’s secrets & struggles: ‘it’s all out there now’

The unstoppable star found time to squash in a book about her amazing life
Photography: Emily Chalk

Dame Susan Devoy isn’t afraid of much. The four-time world squash number-one champion, former Race Relations Commissioner, chairwoman of The Halberg Trust, Celebrity Treasure Island contestant, mum of four boys and even one-time kiwifruit picker is unashamedly straight-talking and famously lacks any filter.

But this year, her courage has been tested because as well as turning 60, she’s also become an author, penning Dame Suzy D: My Story, a book about her remarkable life.

“It felt huge turning 60 – I was in complete denial about it all,” reveals Susan, who now lives in Mount Maunganui with John Oakley, her husband of 38 years. “I can’t believe how fast time has flown. Next month, it’ll be 40 years since I won the squash British Open and while it doesn’t feel like yesterday, it doesn’t feel like four decades ago either.

Turning 60 and keen to take on a new challenge, Susan put pen to paper.

“They say 60 is the new 40, but I don’t know if that’s entirely true. Turning 60 made me realise that I’m getting older and writing the book felt a bit like, ‘Is this it? Is this all I’m going to achieve in my life?’”

That seems unlikely. Sporting great and senior public servant Susan has never done anything by halves and, in her own words, “can’t sit still for two seconds”, so there’s not much chance she’ll be slowing down any time soon.

She and John, 66, are avid walkers and regular travellers – last year, the pair walked the 80km Jordan Trail to the ancient city of Petra in Jordan, followed by the French section of the iconic 780km Camino Way.

Susan is also on the World Squash Federation board and is working with the International Olympic Committee in London, in preparation for her sport’s Olympic debut in Paris this July.

Triumph at the 1987 World Championships in Auckland.

“I love the sport and now it’s in the Olympics, it’s in the stratosphere,” she says. “Squash is in my blood. I’ve been retired for over 30 years, but now we have this opportunity and it’s something I can really get my teeth into.”

It’s an exciting time and Susan has charged into it hammer and tongs, as usual. It’s something she’s finding a lot easier than writing her autobiography, which she admits was a hard undertaking.

“I think the publishers thought I’d need a ghost writer, but I don’t have the patience to sit down and tell someone my life story, so I decided I’d have a crack. I sat down and wrote a couple of pages, and John and I laughed out loud a couple of times, so I thought, ‘I can do this.’”

Of course, penning your life story for the world to read has its consequences.

Susan married her soulmate, manager and fellow squash player John in 1986.

“It’s really confronting. Just like when I went on Celebrity Treasure Island, I forgot about the cameras, then realised people were actually going to watch me on TV in their living rooms. I agreed to do the book, then suddenly realised, ‘Oh, people are going to read it!’”

True to form, Susan started her latest project with a hiss and a roar, then wondered if she’d bitten off more than she could chew.

“I’m not a wordsmith – I prefer to talk rather than write, so it became quite a challenge by the end,” she reveals. “Some chapters, like the one about being the Race Relations Commissioner, I could have written forever, while others, like losing my father, were much harder. But it’s out there now – nothing I can do about it!”

One subject Susan writes about with a huge amount of pride is her family, including her four boys, Julian, 30, Alex, 29, Josh, 27, and 25-year-old Jamie. But while John has had a say in the book, their sons haven’t yet had a read.

The extended family (from left): John, Susan, Alex, Alice, Julian, Lauren, Jamie and Rachel.

“The boys are a good mix of me and their dad, although Julian is a real introvert. We’ve no idea where that came from as it wasn’t from me or John!

“Josh knows he features more than the others – I had to pre-warn him that he’s front and centre,” says Susan, who, along with John, spent the boys’ formative years driving them to an array of sports, including squash, cross-country and cricket.

Now based in London, Josh is doing well, working in sales at a start-up company, but the often-hilarious tales of his shenanigans as a rebellious teenager, along with those of the other boys, will strike a chord with many mums.

As well as being a proud parent, Susan is also a public figure who sits on several boards. With integral roles in a number of high-profile positions over the years, including the Auckland District Health Board in 2001 and as chief executive of Sport Bay of Plenty in 2002, she’s no stranger to controversy.

But her chapter on becoming the Race Relations Commissioner in 2013, after being recommended by then-Justice Minister Judith Collins, is a sobering read.

The young family in 1998.

“I’ve never experienced anything like that,” she says of the visceral level of criticism and vitriol she received when news of her appointment broke, with some calling for her to stand down before she even began.

“I was Pākehā and a woman – there were lots of aspects that made me a target. In some ways, I was prepared as I knew not everyone was going to think my appointment was the greatest thing since sliced bread, but I couldn’t believe some of the comments.

“It was a privilege to be in the role, but it took a toll on me personally. I learned to deal with it, but it was very hard to live through. I know there are a lot of positives in social media, but it truly amazes me that people can be so nasty and write that stuff.

Bros with mos! Susan’s six brothers rocked ’80s moustaches at her 21st.

“On the positive side, I hope it’s been good for my sons to see people hate on their mother. I hope it’s made them think about what they post and when. They’ve seen some horrible things written about me, so I hope it’s made them more aware of the impact that has on people.”

In her book, Susan comes across just as she speaks – it reads as a candid stream of consciousness – but, she admits, not everyone’s memories will be the same and she’s expecting a degree of pushback.

“That’s how life is, though,” she says. “Not everyone is going to agree or see things the same way. But this is my story.”

From the squash court to the boardroom and beyond, the proud mum of four admits she struggles to sit still.

Despite the bravado, however, Susan is apprehensive about how her autobiography will be received.

“As much as I’m very positive and an extrovert, I’m also a natural pessimist and I do have a sense of self. I know people are going to comment, both good and bad, you know?” she says.

“People have this perception that I’m a cold, hard person. I think I scare the living bejeezus out of people and I don’t even realise it! But I am empathetic and I do care. I think the book shows my contradiction of personality – I might pretend I’m not affected by what people say or think about me, but I really am.

“We all say that as we get older, we don’t care what people think so much, but the reality is that everyone does care. I just have better tools for dealing with it.”

While all of her boys are doing well – Julian works in the financial sector, Alex is an engineer and Jamie is an architect – Susan is most proud of who they are, not what they do.

Dame Suzy D: My Story by Susan Devoy (Allen & Unwin, $37.99) is out now.

“I look at the definition of what success is and to me, it’s not about wealth. My boys are good people. Just like their mum, they aren’t perfect, and they each have their issues and challenges, but they’re good people and that’s what matters.

To me, life is about making the most of every opportunity that comes your way. I know it sounds very twee, but I totally believe that it doesn’t matter how good you are at sport or whatever it is you do. Success is about not losing sight of who you are and being true to yourself.

“Being a champion person is much more important than being a champion sportsperson.”

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