It was a change of direction for Phil Nightingale when he was ordained as a Deacon at Peterborough Cathedral on Sunday 24th June. The 36-year-old is an England international squash player, and a former professional in the sport, but his new-found calling has not been a sudden change. “I grew up in a Christian family and began to think at university how I could serve God,” explains Phil. “I got involved in leadership at the Christian Union, and people said, ‘Have you thought about ministry?’ It was always there, so I had a year out at Moulton Parish Church (in Northampton) – combining my squash career with figuring out what I could do in my ministry career.”
His squash calling was apparent at an even younger age. “I started when I was 8 and quite quickly got into the under 10s team at school. I then had Surrey trials between the ages of 10 to 14, which was a big boost to my confidence.”
Another boost to Phil was his entry into Wycliffe College in Gloucestershire, who offered a squash scholarship to prospective pupils. But once he was there, he found it tough going. “My mum found out about it,” recalls Phil. “I had to have an interview with the school and a training session. Then it was training at lunchtimes and evenings every day. I’d never have got into professional squash without that training – it was rigorous.”
It was at Wycliffe that Phil first considered the idea of going professional. “A number of the guys at Wycliffe said they were planning on going full-time, and you also meet professional people through tournaments and visits to school,” says Phil. “When I left school, I was not quite good enough, but I got a Squash scholarship to Birmingham University, and during my time there we won the British University Premier League three times.”
It was also during his university degree that Phil represented England for the first time, and following his graduation in 2005, he turned professional. “In my first tournament, I reached the quarter finals in Italy, and I thought, ‘Maybe I can do this’. I represented Surrey, who are one of the leading teams in the country, and we were National Champions many times. I also won two professional titles – the Limpsfield Open and the Newcastle Cup in 2014.”
During this time, Phil also supplemented his income with coaching. But it was his year out at Moulton in the middle of his professional career that geared his mind towards what he would do when his professional career ended. He ended up at another Wycliffe – Wycliffe Hall in Oxford, this time – in 2015, and his three year ordination training began. The next stop will be St Mary’s Church in Rushden and St Peter’s in the village of Newton Bromswold now that Phil has been ordained (“I will have three and a half years at Rushden and then I’ll be released into the community!”).
But this doesn’t mean an end to Phil’s squash career. He has been runner-up in the Karakal British Open (for over 35s) for the past two years, and has also been commentating for BBC Sport this year. Although the ordination marks a new chapter in his life, he hopes to still maintain an involvement in the game at some level. “I am looking forward to devoting my energies to ministry now, but still hope to train and play competitively where I can – if time allows!”