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Greater Together: From cousins and coastal kids to gold medallists

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In the latest edition of our Greater Together series, Ian Hanson catches up with cousins and Gold Coast 2018 gold medallists Cameron Pilley and Donna Lobban to reflect on their victory in the mixed doubles and how squash has been involved in their family’s lives.

The Birmingham Commonwealth Games may seem a while away yet for some but for Yamba-born squash-playing cousins Donna Lobban and Cameron Pilley, the Games in 2022 can’t come quick enough. 

Donna, 34, and Cameron, 38, realised a dream come true when they gate-crashed the 2018 Commonwealth Games party on the Gold Coast to win unexpected gold in the Mixed Doubles. 

As fate had it, the stars had aligned when the cousins came together for a special golden moment after growing up playing in the backyard together in Yamba on the NSW north coast. 

For Cameron, the victory in 2018 was a slice of Games history, the first player to win three doubles gold medals at consecutive Games tournaments – having won the men’s doubles in Delhi in 2010 and Glasgow in 2014. 

And for Donna, four years Cameron’s junior, but also a two-time Games representative and a women’s doubles bronze medallist from Delhi in 2010, it was a dream come true – without doubt the greatest highlight of what has already been a decorated career. 

The cousins grew up playing squash in the idyllic surroundings of Yamba, a beachside, surfing and fishing mecca just two hours south of Queensland’s Gold Coast and for country kids they could not have asked for a better up-bringing. 

Cameron’s dad, Steve Pilley, was the local squash coach and Donna’s family home was right next-door. 

Donna in action at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games. (CGA Archive)

 

“I was about six years old and my family is still there in Yamba,” recalled Donna this week when we tracked her down in the Yorkshire city of Sheffield where she lives with her Scottish squash playing husband Greg Lobban. 

“The local squash club was run by Cameron’s mum and dad, which was basically next door to our house…so our backyards backed on to each other. 

“Put our backyards together and we had one big playground…with me and my brothers and Cameron and his siblings. 

“We all grew up playing at the Squash Centre and also out in the backyard playing tackle football with the boys and everything else. 

It was so much fun, both growing up within walking distance to the beaches. It was an unbelievable childhood… As a kid living there… you’ve just got no idea how lucky you are. 

“We would go across the road and run around on the oval and play all kind of sports… it was just so easy to do. We were outdoors all of the time… it was such good fun.” 

Donna and Cameron both went to Yamba Primary School and that was 400m walk from home… and like most Yamba kids they went to High School at Maclean High, just a 20-minute bus ride from home. 

“Cameron and I grew up together running around the courts in between watching our mums run around the court,” said Donna. 

“It’s funny to think how small our beginnings were and how small a place we’re from really; we both grew up being coached by Steve and he would coach a lot of the junior kids in Yamba. 

“And they had a pretty good squash program with all the local kids coming to play in the afternoons and when I was a kid my mum coached me as well. 

“I remember as a kid I had a two-handed backhand and mum would try and teach me to play with one… and having to put my right hand behind my back. 

“Cameron was four years older than me and I remember always looking up to him at Junior Tournaments. 

“He was really good and was really like my older brother… and I remember as teenagers him doing coaching sessions with me… and that was always a lot of fun.  

“He would play a game against me and he would play left-handed. 

“Cameron was one of those people who was really gifted and he was ambidextrous and he could actually beat me and I was one of the best juniors in the country. 

“It was so demoralising that he could beat me with his left hand. 

“When I was still at High School and Cameron had just finished he got a scholarship to the AIS Squash program in Brisbane to play professionally and become a full time squash player which opened up my eyes. 

“I was just 14 years old and the Australian Junior champion and I thought I really want to do that one day. 

So when I finished high school I got a scholarship to the AIS too to become a full time squash player. 

“When I got there Cameron was overseas for most of the year, playing tournaments and basing himself overseas and I was still based in Brisbane but as I went on I started basing myself overseas a bit more too and we would see each other at the big tournaments.” 

Cameron and Donna celebrate winning a point at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games. (CGA Archive)

 

Donna and Cameron each played in two Commonwealth Games – in Delhi and Glasgow – before the Gold Coast and it didn’t work out that they came together as a mixed doubles partnership until 2018. 

In the lead up to the Gold Coast it looked like it would be a good option for the “Yamba cousins connection” to come together to try playing together. 

In the two years leading up to the Games the cousins practiced together and at the World Doubles Championship they gelled well together and enjoyed playing together – like those early days in Yamba. 

So they thought they would give it a good crack going into the Commonwealth Games. 

“We went into the Games not ranked No 1 seeds or anything but we did have a quiet confidence about ourselves as a partnership,” said Donna. 

“We knew on our day we could probably beat anyone but there were a lot of teams that were the same and it was anyone’s on the right day. 

“In the semi-final we had to play against an English pairing, second-seeded Alison Waters and Daryl Selby who we had come up against in the World Doubles Championship in the quarter-finals and I had torn my calf muscle in the first few points of the match and we had to retire. 

“It was brutal to think I had let the team down there and there was a good chance to think we were seeded lower at the Commonwealth Games because of that. 

“But we knew were maybe capable of better than that but because we were up against this particular English pairing we maybe felt there was unfinished business. 

“We always thought we had a good chance against them and we knew that if we could get through that match anything could happen. 

“We went into that match so focused and so determined but we managed to stay relaxed as well which in hindsight still amazes me because if I had stopped to kind of think about it for a second I would have been an absolute nervous wreck.

“Everyone you know is watching on TV or in the crowd and you are wanting to do so well. 

“In front of your home crowd that you want it more than anything and there was so much pressure on. 

“We were not expected to win it, but we wanted it so badly and we were really up for that match and when we won it felt like we’d won the final. 

“We were both so stoked that we won... it felt like we’d already won. 

“Just to know we were playing off for silver or gold; that was an amazing feeling. 

“We had to re-set the next day and say ‘it’s not over yet’… we’ve got to do it all over again… but because it already felt like such a big thing to win that semi-final we felt that anything after that was a bonus. 

“We went into the final thinking we had nothing to lose… we were really relaxed… and we felt like the pressure wasn’t on us… we managed to hold our nerve just enough to play really well in the in the final to just get over the line against the Indian pairing… it was just incredible. 

“It is the easily the best moment of my career and I know Cameron has won other Commonwealth Games gold medals but for (both of us) it was a great experience. 

“Cameron is just such a relaxed character and he was just so fun to play with…. you would look at him and he would give you a smile… he was such a good personality to play with… he relaxed me that’s for sure.” 

“It feels amazing,” Pilley said at the time. 

“Every other gold I’ve won is so special. But to play in front of such a great Aussie crowd is something we never get the opportunity to do.  

“I’ve got about ten family from Denmark who’ve come over and we’ve both got a massive group from Yamba that came up.  

“So, to do it in front of all your friends and family who never get to see you play – and we walk away with a gold medal – it makes it even better!” 

Cameron and Donna won gold at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games. (CGA Archive)

 

Pilley, who retired from professional squash at the end of 2019, and is now coaching in Connecticut in the US has had an outstanding record competing for Australia in teams events, having won those three Commonwealth Games gold medals.  

He has also won two Commonwealth Games bronze medals and one silver and three bronze medals at the Men’s World Team Championships. 

Australia has topped the medal tally for Squash in the past two Commonwealth Games and Pilley has been crucial to that success. 

And their secret to being “Greater Together?” 

“Never forgetting where you come from and when we do that we can never get too far ahead of ourselves because we are both still country kids at heart, from humble, simple beginnings,” said Lobban. 

“After winning the Commonwealth Games and then coming back to the Gold Coast in 2019 to win the World Doubles, it would be nice to keep the streak going in Birmingham. 

“Hopefully at the next Commonwealth Games we will come back to play in the doubles again.” 

The Yamba cousins thanking the crowd at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games. (CGA Archive)

 

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