To look at the smiling and playful Peter Nicol coaching youngsters on a squash court in Hell’s Kitchen, it is difficult to believe that he’s been playing for over forty years — five of them as World Number One in the sport. His journey included meeting his wife at the other end of 42nd Street and a life-changing couple of days in a Kazakhstan jail.
Peter opened Nicol Squash on W42nd Street between 10th and Dyer Avenue in late 2021 with his wife and business partner, Jess Winstanley. It is a real family affair with their eight-year-old son, Bode, playing the game and Jess’s mom, Melissa, organizing camps.
Their story started when Jess used to come to help her mother to organize the Tournament of Champions at Grand Central Terminal. “I’ve known Peter for a million years. He would play in the tournament and I would come and help my mom on school break. I got to know all the players. I was a kid — I’m eight years younger than Peter,” says Jess. Peter won the tournament in New York three times.
“We got together 17 years ago in New York and then after a year, we realized we wanted to be together. So we had to decide whether I was coming to New York or Jess was coming to London,” remembers Peter. “Jess came to London.”
Their next decision was based on a conversation in a military prison cell in Kazakhstan. Peter was working with a friend on the idea of opening a sports complex for foreign oil workers in the country. “We’d met people in my home town of Aberdeen who had connections in the oil business. Out in Kazakhstan, they wanted to give workers all the amenities possible — including a sports facility. We got our visas at the embassy in London, but when we arrived at the airport they said that our visas were not valid. It later transpired that two guys from Kazakhstan got kicked out at Heathrow for not having proper visas — so we were the retaliation,” Peter recalls.
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They spent two days in a military jail in the middle of nowhere. “I was sharing the small cell with my friend who was an 18 stone Welshman and he just keep saying ‘why didn’t you go back to Scotland? London’s London and you’ve finished professional squash with the need to travel, Aberdeen is where your contacts and your family are’,” says Peter.
Peter picked up his first racket at the age of four at his father’s tennis club in Aberdeen — at age eight he took hold of his first squash racket. “As a grown man, I’d never been home to Scotland. I left when I was seventeen. So I asked Jess when I returned from the trip if she would consider coming and living the idyllic Scottish lifestyle in the middle of the countryside?” says Peter. She said yes.
The couple continued to keep their American connection by running summer camps organized by Jess’s mom — and that led to their return to the States four years after the move to Aberdeen. “We loved the summer camps. We both loved the experience of working with kids. We thought it was the most fun thing ever,” says Jess. “We did that for a number of years, but then realized we wanted to do more of it. We decided to move to the States and we picked New York because five or six of the most loyal families who came to the summer camps were from here. They’ve been amazing supporters.”
The couple initially started running junior weekend courses at courts in Brooklyn and then moved to work with a business in midtown. Just before the pandemic, they decided to create their own place. “We signed the lease just before COVID. Which wasn’t very helpful,” laughs Jess. “As for many, these have been the worst two years of our lives so far. There were some pretty dark days. COVID has been nothing but a pain in the rear. It reminds me of a favorite movie as a teenager — The Neverending Story…”
They signed up for the space, where Treehaus used to be, sandwiched between Signature Theatre and the MiMa residential building. “The space is an MTA easement. It was originally designed for a subway station on the 7 line,” says Peter. “In terms of squash, it’s basically a bombproof single box. Which is unheard of in Manhattan. There are no columns. There’s nothing in the way. So we could just plonk in four courts. For squash, it was absolutely perfect.”
During the pandemic, they innovated while keeping their staff employed. “We started as a family business and that’s how we see ourselves. We worked with everyone to try and keep them employed,” says Peter. Jess explained that they were creative, saying: “We did weekly, donation-based workouts. We created online programming for our kids. The families paid and came every single time. They were so great.”
The doors opened to the squash center on September 13, 2021 and they have already built a large following of youngsters for their courses. This month, they are starting adult courses for those interested in taking up (or at least trying out) the game.
Peter’s pleased that people who come in to enquire about squash know what it is these days. “When I first came over here in 1992, no one knew what squash was. I’d come into the airport and people thought that I was here for a squash growing competition,” laughs Peter. “Now, people walking in actually know what it is or have heard of it or are aware of it. So that’s what’s changed for me in 30 years.”
Jess and Peter want to want to make squash accessible to people in Hell’s Kitchen. They couple their court time with HIIT training circuits to create a full workout.
“We are considered the leading junior program in New York City. We’ve been doing it for eight years, we’ve got such an amazing team and we have a great system,” says Jess. “Now, we have an opportunity to do new things, which is what we’re all about. We’re starting with a whole fleet of classes that start in January, which I think will be familiar to people’s experience at a boutique fitness studio. They are 45-minute structured classes and no matter if you have hit the ball before or not, you’re going to get a great workout.”
In the true family tradition, their son Bode played his first tournament at the club in December. We asked how he had done. “He did great — lost every match but had fun and a good attitude! The quality/level was much higher than any of us anticipated. He was the youngest there so we’ll see if he gets into it further and keeps competing,” said a proud mom!
Nicol Squash is located at 476 42nd Street (between 10th and Dyer Avenue). More details at nicolsquash.com