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Kiwi squash champ Paul Coll’s big Greek wedding plans

Paul and his fellow sports star fiancée Nele Gilis have their wedding and the Paris Olympics in their sights!
Lydia Nimmo, Getty

Chatting to champion squash player Paul Coll about his recent title wins, you’d never guess he was currently number three in the world – or even number one in New Zealand – with his typically casual Kiwi demeanour.

The Greymouth-born athlete takes his sporting success in his stride. It probably helps that he’s engaged to fellow squash player and women’s world number four Nele Gilis, who hails from Belgium.

The couple is talking to Woman’s Day from the deck of Paul’s parents’ home on the West Coast not long after taking out the men’s and women’s titles at the New Zealand Squash Open in December.

“This season has been good,” shrugs Paul, 31. “It was a nice six months for us. We got some good results.”

‘We’re living our dream!’

Together for more than eight years, he and Nele, 27, have spent that time travelling the world and playing at the same tournaments. Winning national titles side by side is just another day in the young couple’s life.

“It’s pretty normal,” Paul insists. “Our life revolves around squash. The fact we can travel together and we’re not really away from each other for too long – maybe two weeks at a time – definitely makes life easy. You take home with you in a way.”

The pair met at a squash tournament in Ireland in 2016 and got engaged during a trip back to Aotearoa in December 2022.

“I knew I wanted to propose here,” explains Paul. “We were up north camping and the time was right. The ring is very Kiwi – it’s made partially of pounamu from the West Coast. I wanted to make it a real New Zealand experience because Nele loves it here.”

Trophies for two at 2023’s New Zealand Open.

The couple share a love of the outdoors and all of their holidays, though brief and rare, consist of beach visits and getting back to nature.

“We love that side of life, so I wanted to do something like that for the proposal to make it special,” says Paul. “New Zealand was the obvious choice where we could celebrate with my family. It was cool.”

Having visited Paul’s family every second Christmas, Nele has fallen in love with Aotearoa. So much so, they’re already making plans to possibly move here after their retirement from sport.

“I can totally see us raising our kids here,” says Nele. “It’s such a beautiful, safe space. Everyone’s so chilled out. You just feel away from the rest of the world.”

Paul Coll and fiancé Nele Gilis standing on a rock in front of the ocean

For now, they’re living just outside of Amsterdam, close to Nele’s folks, because it makes tournament travel easiest. But they’ve agreed on Greece for their wedding location because of the beautiful beaches and the fact it’s neutral ground for both their families.

“Mine are keen to tag on a European holiday, so Greece worked out perfectly,” smiles Paul, adding they’ve scheduled a week of wedding festivities so their respective relatives can mix and mingle.

“We have three events planned over the week, so everyone can still relax on holiday but also get to know each other. They probably won’t get to meet up much after that, living on opposite sides of the world.”

Due to their busy sporting schedules, the pair have enlisted the help of a wedding planner. Nele adds, “We have to hold it in July because it’s the only time we really get a break between seasons. This is actually the first proper holiday we’ve had in three years!”

Paul Coll on one knee, proposing to Nele Gilis

Paul popping the question on a camping trip up north. “It was cool,” he says.

Despite their busy lives, Paul and Nele know the importance of finding time to nurture their relationship.

“It works because we relate to each other so much,” says Paul. “Our similar lifestyles are something we’ve learnt to deal with over the course of our relationship. It’s also helped us to deal with the ups and downs of the sport. While one can be on a massive high from winning, the other can be really down from losing. It definitely helps that we understand how the other feels.”

For example, says Paul, when he was struggling last season, his fiancée pulled him out of his slump.

“Nele was doing really well at the time. It was good to observe what she was doing and how she prepares for tournaments. It made me look in the mirror to see where I was going wrong. It’s inspiring living with someone who has that same mindset and intensity. It definitely rubs off on you when you need it.”

In their day-to-day life, Nele and Paul are very strict about what they eat, how they train and even how they sleep. They get to bed early and are up early for training most days.

Paul Coll in action playing Squash

Smiling, Paul says, “We’re both on the same wavelength, which makes life a lot easier. But Nele does pull me up on eating too many chips, which is a bit annoying. She has banned me from chips. I can only have them on the weekends!”

He and Nele play and train together every week. Asked if they get competitive, Paul chuckles, “Not me, but Nele does.” Laughing, she adds, “There’s often some friendly competition.”

Paul and Nele, who both started playing squash at age six, now share the goal of being number one in the world. She says, “We’re not the kind of people to do something and feel like it’s OK to be just average at it.”

Paul became the first Kiwi male to claim the title in 2022, but he says it takes more than a world ranking to impress Greymouth locals. “When I come home, I get grounded,” he grins. “Everyone takes the piss out of me. They don’t seem to really care at all.”

Paul Coll and Nele Gilis standing on a rock

Hanging out in gorge-eous Hokitika

With squash finally accepted into the Olympics for 2028, the pair will be training hard towards the Los Angeles Games, with Paul estimating he has another five years until retirement. But he’s mindful it’s something he might have to consider sooner rather than later if they want to start a family.

“We talk about having kids, obviously,” says Paul. “It all depends on when Nele is happy and wants to finish playing. I would never put any pressure on her, but we definitely know we both want kids in the future.”

For now, though, they’re both focused on their sporting aspirations.

“We love what we do every day,” says Nele. “It doesn’t feel like we’re working at all. We’re both just living our dream.”

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