Yvonne’s the best in the business bar nun

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SHE has been at times a nun, dancer, designer and - most famously - a squash player, but the role most Banbridge people will recognise is Yvonne Jackson the retail manager; and one who appreciates a decent pair of running shoes when she sees them.

Yvonne is the focus this week for the Leader’s new series on people and their jobs and it is clear the former Ulster number one squash player enjoys every minute of her role as manager of Shoefair, the specialist sportswear department within Donaghy’s shoe and clothing shop, Banbridge.

Just to clarify the ‘nun’ description above, we had better start by pointing out this was in fact a temporary change in career and literally lasted only one night.

The popular sports fan and charity worker, along with Banbridge butcher Joe Quail, dressed as a nun for her Sister Act ‘party piece’ in the charity fundraiser ‘School Around the Corner’ hosted by Frank Mitchell in the Coach Inn earlier this year, which reportedly brought the house down.

“It was the most hilarious night ever,” says Yvonne during a coffee break at Shoefair. “We literally couldn’t stop laughing.”

Laughing is something she does a lot - and you just have to join in when she describes how she dressed in pigtails and school uniform to talk to Frank on the settee in an adult spoof version of the Ulster Television programme which raised a staggering £19,000 for the Northern Ireland Hospice.

“We all made idiots out of ourselves, but it was for a great cause,” she smiles. “The best bit was when Joseph took off his nun’s outfit to reveal brightly coloured hotpants underneath.”

When Yvonne was a ‘dancer’, it was again for charity, this time as part of a ‘Strictly’ line-up to raise cash for the coffers of the NSPCC.

“People thought I would be able to pick up the dance routines quite easily because I have always been sporty, but being co-ordinated as a dancer was completely different,” she says. “I found out I had two left feet, but it was great fun. They invited me back this year as a judge.”

When she’s not performing star acts for charity, Yvonne is very much at home on the shop floor, whether that is seeing to customers, organising advance orders, or designing the latest sports kit for local schools and clubs.

Stella McCartney may have been responsible for designing the official Olympics outfits, but the former squash supremo takes similar pride in coming up with her own sleek and snappy sportswear for local athletes.

Her customers include Banbridge Academy as well as the local hockey and football clubs and coming up with a winning look for each ‘brand’ is part of the job she loves best.

“I’ll meet with teachers or club officials and they will give me an idea of how they want something to look,” she explains. “We will discuss designs, colours, logos, that sort thing, and then I’ll start with a pen and paper before moving on to the computer for a more polished finish.

“It is a bit like the Olympics - it takes months of work for two months of selling, just like the Olympic athletes train for years in the background before stepping into the stadium for their moment of glory.”

Although a background player herself now, Yvonne did bask in her own moments of sporting glory, rising through the ranks to become Ulster’s number one and Ireland’s number two squash player.

At the peak of her sporting career - during which time she still worked full-time in retail - she played in the World Championships in Vancouver and played in the top English league fixtures twice a year.

But, in order to continue to move up the echelons of her chosen sport, she realised a decision was looming - whether to turn professional or not and make the necessary sacrifices affecting her beloved job, home and family.

“I was playing against people who were doing it full-time, yet I was working full-time and fitting my squash around my job, so something was going to have to give,” she says. “In the end, I decided it would have to be the squash.”

Now married to civil engineer husband Ivan and a mother-of-three, it is a decision she hasn’t regretted for a moment, although she says she would like to mastermind a revival in the sport she still loves.

“I don’t know what it is, but squash just isn’t popular anymore,” she says regretfully. “Years ago, when it was the game to play, I had to queue in the morning to book a squash court for that evening.

“I think maybe lack of media coverage may have something to do with it. If young kids don’t see people play, the sport doesn’t gain a fan base the same way other, more high profile sports do.”

Whatever the reason behind the public’s falling out of love with squash, she still picks up a racquet herself every now and then and has a run around the squash court with any opponent brave enough to take her on.

At forty-something, she runs, keeps fit and is as trim as ever, but is she still as competitive? She’s not saying, but it is the way she doesn’t say it that makes you think Yvonne Jackson could still thump a ball against a wall and make your jaw drop.

A grafter on the court and off, she worked her way from the shop floor too, rising from sales assistant to the management position she holds today in the family-owned business she has worked in for 23 years.

“I wanted to be a PE teacher at one stage, but that didn’t work out,” is her stoical summing up of things. “I think I concentrated too much on my sport and not enough on my studies. I left school at 16 and didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do.”

But it is a funny old world and things often come full circle, because although she did not become an Olympic gold medal-winning squash player and she did not become a PE teacher, she is buying, selling and designing sportswear to people who also love sport.

And then there is the charity aspect, with Donaghy’s sponsoring several local sporting events, including the annual sports awards which take place this month, and the Bann 10K race which this year benefited the Mourne Mountain Rescue Team and Southern Area Hospice Services.

“As a business, it is nice to give something back to the community and we like to keep it local,” Yvonne adds. “This year we are supporting Enable and Fields of Life.

“I see this work as a ‘Thank you’ gesture to all the people who support us every day of the week and all year round.”