“I TOOK A VERY DESTRUCTIVE PATH”
By Evan Rosser | Photography by Sasha Barkans
“I TOOK A VERY DESTRUCTIVE PATH”
By Evan Rosser | Photography by Sasha Barkans
In between her time as a teenage squash prodigy and her recent provincial championship, Becks Dudley survived multiple suicide attempts and many nights living on the streets. This is the story of one of sports’ greatest comebacks.

Becks Dudley doesn’t like long rallies, and damned if this one isn’t already six shots old when she gets her first good chance to end it. It’s a Thursday afternoon in early May at the Mayfair Club in Toronto. Dudley’s entered herself in the Women’s A Division — one notch below the pros — at the 2019 Canadian Squash Championships and made the quarterfinals. She and her opponent, Amal Izhar, a 14-year-old Ontarian with a second-place finish at junior nationals on her resume, have run through their five-minute warmup and just started the match proper. Even in these first few points, it’s clear Izhar has a deep well of energy and the muscle to put some heavy pace on the ball. For Dudley, it must feel a bit like playing a younger version of herself, an alternate-universe Becks.

As the sixth shot of the rally comes off the wall, Dudley is at centre court waiting for it. She crushes a forehand that forces Izhar to hustle the full diagonal length of the floor, but the junior manages to get to the ball as it comes off the glass. Izhar is just recovering from that effort when Dudley’s next shot wrong-foots her. Again she has to lunge into the back-right corner to keep the rally alive. This time, though, her answer pulls Dudley forward and when the ball comes back to Izhar, the junior turns the tables, forcing Dudley to pound out a corner-to-corner run of her own. Dudley gets to the ball and fires a return back the way she came. She sees Izhar’s finisher, a drop volley to the front-left corner, coming before she’s even turned around, but there’s just too much court to cover. She pulls up short and offers a small wave of her racquet, conceding the point and acknowledging Izhar’s skill and hustle. After the game, which she loses 11–3, Dudley comes off smiling. “F—king juniors,” she says, shaking her head as she works to catch her breath. “She gets to everything.”

A year and a half ago, Dudley was 100 pounds heavier and getting drunk almost every day in the house she rents in Medicine Hat, Alta. Anxiety kept her from venturing beyond her backyard, except on rare occasions, and periods of depression convinced her there wasn’t much point in even getting out of bed. Not yet 30, she had spent years on the street and in drug houses in Ottawa, Winnipeg and Vancouver, and attempted suicide four times. She didn’t see a future for herself beyond getting drunk and partying with the travellers she let crash at her place as they passed through town, and she didn’t seem to be looking for one.

Today, Dudley is an Alberta provincial squash champion who eats a salad for lunch and dinner every day, and puts back 60 or more between each night she decides to have a couple of drinks. She is one of sport’s great comeback stories, playing out live for anyone at the Mayfair who cares to pay attention. And as she heads back through the glass door and onto the court for the second game against Izhar, she doesn’t seem the least bit bothered to be down 0–1 in the best-of-five match. She’s proven everything she’ll ever need to just by stepping on the court.

THE LONGSHOT
After entering the Alberta Closed Championships in March as the second-lowest-rated player, Dudley won four matches on her way to the title

Rebecca Dudley was born in Oakville in October 1988, the younger of Bob and Deb Dudley’s two girls. The family moved a lot in her first decade, Bob’s work as an aerospace engineer bouncing them around Ontario, to Mississauga, Milverton and Orillia, and to Bramhall, England, and Bridgeport, West Virginia. But despite the challenge of calling a new place home every year or two, they were happy. “I had a good childhood,” Dudley says. “Nothing to complain about.”

Dudley was the “kind of kid that would do anything for you,” her dad says, but who would usually get distracted along the way. If you asked her to get something upstairs, she’d eagerly tear off only to be found minutes later playing on the first flight or looking out the window. The major exception came in the focus she showed in sports. Bob remembers early soccer games: 20 or so six-year-olds chasing the ball around the field in a clump. Dudley would stand separate and track the proceedings, intercepting the ball and taking off up the field after anticipating where it was headed. “She didn’t chase the ball all that much,” Bob says. “It seemed to naturally find its way to her.”

In the summer before Dudley’s 11th birthday, Bob took a job with StandardAero and the family settled in Winnipeg. The Winnipeg Winter Club was near their new place — a pool! an ice rink! racquet courts! — and they all got memberships. Bob and Deb had first met playing squash, and with her father showing her the basics, Dudley quickly fell in love with the sport. Her sister, Alex, gravitated to hockey, following in a different set of Bob’s footsteps — he’d played at Boston University in the ’70s.

Within a year of picking up a racquet, Dudley had made the junior provincial squash team and was working under the direction of a few different coaches. Trevor Borland, her provincial team coach, remembers the incredible speed of her development as a player. “You could feel her improvement literally every time she was out there on the court,” he says.

Getting better stoked Dudley’s passion for the sport. “It definitely seemed like she loved it,” Alex says. “She certainly put in the effort. Whether it was a lesson’s done or a game’s done, she was always back out there, hitting a ball. She lived and breathed it.”

Bob highlights his daughter’s immaculate footwork — her smoothness on the court — and her determination and competitiveness as the hallmarks of her game. In the days before squash shifted to a rally-point scoring system, she could be down 8–0 and still come back and win, he says.

Borland zeros in on Dudley’s skill as a retriever, her ability to chase down balls other players would give up on “mainly because she was so strong” and could get into and out of lunges cleanly and powerfully. He also notes that “she hardly ever got flustered” — a rare trait in a junior, especially one competing in an individual sport.

At 14, in the 2002–03 squash season, Dudley won the Canadian and U.S. Opens for her age group and became the youngest member of the junior national team. She also won a bronze with Team Manitoba at the Canada Games and took home the Canadian junior national championship. In the final at nationals, Borland remembers, she surrendered only a single point. She was arguably the best under-15 player on this side of the Atlantic, and one of the top eight or so under-18s in the country, by Borland’s estimation. The coach viewed her potential in the sport as “pretty unlimited.”

GETTING OVER
Dudley, left, was the youngest member of the Canadian junior national squash team before abruptly quitting the sport at 15

In the midst of that outstanding season, though, something in Dudley began to change. She started skipping classes. She cut her hair into a mohawk and wore baggier clothes and chains. When she moved on to her first year at Vincent Massey Collegiate in the fall of 2003, her parents began to get calls about her smoking and drinking at school.

On her 15th birthday, Dudley got in a fight with her parents. Drunk and upset, she told them she was quitting squash. She ran away from home the same day. “I didn’t really want to quit, but I’m stubborn and I refused to admit that they were right,” she says now. “So I never… I didn’t play again.”

About a month later, Alex noticed that Dudley was stockpiling money and supplies to run away again, so she and Deb drove to Vincent Massey to confront her. Dudley agreed to talk to them, but asked for some time to eat lunch first. While Alex and Deb were gone, Dudley said goodbye to a friend in the cafeteria, a length of rope peeking out of her pocket, and then hung herself in a school stairwell, jumping from the second floor. According to Dudley and Alex, a teacher cut her down with a pair of scissors and she fell a number of feet from where she’d been hanging, crashing down onto the stairs and hitting her head. “Doctors couldn’t believe she didn’t snap her neck when she jumped,” Alex remembers. “And then on top of that, she survived the choking and smashing her head.”

Dudley woke up at the Children’s Hospital of Winnipeg and spent about a month in the psychiatric ward. She received a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder, which, according to Dr. Robert Biskin, an assistant professor of psychiatry at McGill University, is “best understood as a disorder of dysregulation.” People with BPD experience emotions that “are very intense and volatile, easily changing, and can often fluctuate within minutes or hours multiple times a day,” Biskin explains, adding that efforts to manage those emotions can lead to “self-harm, cutting, drug use or other sorts of impulsive behaviours.”

“Unlike a broken leg or a torn muscle, there was no simple way to fix what was going on.”

Back at home, Dudley’s parents scrambled to figure out how to care for her, how to act around her and react to her, with little practical understanding of mental illness and next to no institutional support. “It was probably the most stressful time that I’ve ever undergone,” Bob says. “Unlike a broken leg or a torn muscle, there was no simple way to fix what was going on.”

In the summer of 2004, Dudley, still just 15, hitchhiked from Winnipeg to Ottawa with a friend. She came back for her dad’s birthday after a month on the street in the capital, but was determined to leave again. This time, Deb drove her out to the highway. “She dropped me off at the truck stop, crying but knowing that I was going anyway,” Dudley says. “I think them giving me that space I needed to sort through my shit — even though I took a very destructive path — is why we are so close now.”

Dudley spent the next three years in Ottawa. She had places to stay off-and-on over that stretch, but slept outside for her whole first winter in the city, sharing a sleeping bag on the sidewalk in front of a McDonald’s on Rideau St. “The coldest nights, you’re waking up in the morning and can’t feel your feet,” she says. The nearby drop-in centre opened at 8:00 a.m. “We’d waddle there and warm up and then go panhandle, make money for drugs and do it all over again.

“There were a lot of shitty things [about living on the street],” Dudley says. “But it was just part of the lifestyle. And there was a lot of good, I guess, for me.”

In Ottawa, she had found a community of kids roughly her age and lived a life almost completely absent authority figures. “Other than police being jerks, no one was ever telling you what to do, right? You had your close friends, you had each other’s backs, you were family,” she says. “So, to me, even with all the messed-up stuff that came with doing drugs, it was still a lifestyle I enjoyed for a long time.”

She called home regularly to let her family know she was okay. Both Alex and Bob say they knew how to reach her most of the time, but still lived half-expecting to hear any moment that she’d died. To cope, her parents developed what Bob calls “the 20-minute rule,” learning to live a period of hockey at a time and to appreciate when 20 minutes had passed without their lives falling apart.

Dudley moved home to Winnipeg in the fall of 2007, just before her 19th birthday. She got a job and started working to get clean. She lasted nine months before giving her notice and hitchhiking to Vancouver. “As much as she tried, it wasn’t the end,” Bob says.

A month after arriving on the Downtown Eastside, Dudley was hit by a car and broke her foot. The Vancouver scene was full of a “different kind of people [than Ottawa],” she says. She had to tie all her things to her wheelchair at night to weigh it down as a theft-deterrent. A little ways into her recovery, when she took her cast off to air her leg while she slept, someone stole the cast.

She got apartments in rough shared-living situations, all of which featured plenty of drugs, mold and cockroaches. Almost a year into her time in Vancouver, she would often sit at the bridge where Main Street crosses over Waterfront Road and think about jumping in front of a train. That’s where she was when she got a Facebook message from a friend in Calgary who was fostering an eight-year-old pitbull. “Hey, I’ve got something you might want,” the message began. Dudley knew her answer immediately: “I decided not to kill myself and to go get this dog instead,” she says.

Taffy, the dog, was “a godsend,” says Bob. “With Taffy came the end of the 20-minute rule. Taffy brought her a sense of responsibility.”

Dudley hitchhiked to Calgary in the fall of 2009 to bring her dog home. She would find out later that Taffy had been considered “vicious” prior to the adoption. “But from the moment I picked her up, she got along with every dog,” Dudley says. “She was just the most loving, caring creature, that gave me the time of day when I felt like I really didn’t have anyone …. I walked her in downtown Vancouver, off-leash, every day. She never left my side. She was just this perfect thing who, I guess, had also never really been loved and felt that love. So she acted out. We were the same. She was a dog version of me. We just kind of understood each other.”

TWO OF A KIND
Dudley says Taffy, the dog she adopted in 2009, did wonders for her mental health

Wanting to create the best environment she could for Taffy, Dudley made the decision to stop using drugs. She felt, though, that getting clean wasn’t going to be possible in Vancouver. In February 2010, Alex, then an RCMP officer based in Medicine Hat, had been seconded to the Olympic Games. The sisters connected while they were in the same city, and Alex encouraged Dudley to move to Medicine Hat, promising to help her settle and get established there. Dudley and Taffy moved in April 2010. She has been clean since.

Settling into their new house during Southeastern Alberta’s storm season, the pair didn’t have much furniture — really just a futon, a couch and a kitchen table, to go along with a TV and Bob’s old electric piano. During their first thunderstorm in the house, Dudley cranked music and hid under the covers with Taffy to ride it out. Bob has a theory that Taffy wasn’t actually afraid of storms; that she pretended in order to make Dudley feel better. “Maybe,” Dudley acknowledges. “She would’ve done that.”

Though she says that Taffy did wonders for her mental health, for the last years of Taffy’s life Dudley struggled to leave the house and continued to drink heavily. “I felt so bad that I couldn’t walk my dog,” she says. “I’d have panic attacks.”

She would try, following Taffy out of the backyard. Halfway down the alley behind their house, though, Taffy would turn around and head back home, seemingly of her own accord. “She knew I just really didn’t want to be out there,” Dudley says. For exercise, they played in the backyard and had plenty of “dog visitors.”

Taffy died on Sept. 30, 2015, shortly after her 15th birthday. It was cancer, but it came on quick. “She went from being a puppy [in the way she behaved] to being … not,” Dudley says. With Taffy gone, Dudley’s anxiety intensified. She lived in a kind of limbo for four or five months and then tried to kill herself again, taking 70 sleeping pills. She came to in the hospital. Her mom and a friend were there beside her. “And my body hurt so bad,” she says. “I woke up and I was just like, ‘For f–k’s sake. I can’t even do this one thing right and die.’”

The restaurant at the Mayfair Club is open, bright and two-thirds empty when Dudley sits down for a pre-match lunch. She’s in baggy sweats, the top sleeveless and baring her arms, which are covered in cut and burn scars, and stick-and-poke tattoos. It says “Lady Gaga” and “Abortion” across her knuckles, “I [Heart] Homo Sex” on her forearm. There’s a pie cooling on a windowsill on one bicep.

Without the purple headband she wears on court, her short, dark hair falls how it wants and the Xs inked on her forehead are visible — “Taffy” written above the left X, “Becks” above the right. Her eyes are the shifting blue-green-grey of a lake, a colour not far off tattoo ink. When she orders a veggie burger and salad, she squints as she smiles at the waiter.

Dudley drank for another two years after Taffy’s death. She was miserable but didn’t fully acknowledge it, and she felt powerless to change her life. When, in 2017, she talked to a doctor about getting breast-reduction surgery to alleviate the daily back pain she’s lived with for years and was told she’d have to lose 55 pounds to be eligible, she just wrote off the possibility. Never gonna happen, she thought at the time. “And then I went on my drunk, merry way.”

In November 2017, Dudley started talking to a Texan named Tylar on the internet, who she says, “kind of made me look hard in the mirror and realize I was really unhappy with myself.”

She’d had no shortage of rock-bottom, come-to-Jesus moments — the kinds of painful, humbling experiences often highlighted in recovery narratives. But the reason Tylar’s words hit home, according to Dudley at least, was somewhat less obviously profound. “She was just a babe. Super-hot chick on the internet. Way out of my league,” Dudley says. “And I’m like, ‘I’m a fat drunk and she’s this bombshell of a babe who gives me the time of day. I can’t meet her like this. I need to be the best me.’ And that literally was my motivation: a hot chick on the internet. All those years of f–king up my life and it took one girl in Texas for me to be like, ‘I need to get my shit together.’”

ON HER SLEEVE
Covered in cuts, burns and tattoos, Dudley’s arms tell a story of who she is and what she’s been through

With a plan to meet in person in the works, Dudley decided to take three days off drinking — she ended up going a month. She’d been 260 pounds, but started losing weight soon after cutting out the booze. Unsurprisingly, she felt better, too. She got to like waking up sober and free from hangover.

Dudley joined the local Y in early 2018. Her goal was to go two or three times a week, but she started going five times, then 13. “It became my addiction,” she says.

There were squash courts at the gym. After a month of working out she decided to play again. “I kind of hit on the back courts, so no one would see me,” she says. “I went out and hit the ball by myself every day, but I didn’t have anyone to play because I didn’t know anyone.”

That summer, she met someone she could play. Neil Maser brushed off the idea of a game at first, suggesting Dudley play his daughter, Jenna Martin, instead. She did, and won 11–1. Maser messaged her soon after, the gist being: “I heard you whupped Jenna’s butt. I guess we should get out there and play.” She beat him, too. After her name made the rounds in the wake of those victories, members of the local squash league offered to pay for her to join. “Kind of made me feel pretty special,” she says.

“I literally stood in my backyard and said it out loud: ‘I’m actually happy.’ And then I started crying because I’m always going to be emo.”

Dudley entered her first tournament, the Calgary Open, on a whim in October 2018, signing up with just 10 days to prepare. She’s since played in 10 more, winning six and notching a second-place finish, a third-, and a consolation-finals win. At the Alberta Open, she took two games off Khaaliqa Nimji, a 21-year-old pro who’s represented Kenya at the Commonwealth Games. Her biggest win, though, came at the Alberta Closed Championships — for players who reside in the province — in March.

There weren’t enough women to field an A division at the tournament, so Dudley moved up to Open. A few of the province’s top pros, like Danielle Letourneau, didn’t enter, but the competition was stiff with just one player ranked lower than Dudley going in. Okay, I won’t come last place, she thought. She was underestimating herself some, it turns out; she had four matches and won them all to claim the provincial title.

Her toughest competition was Julie Multamaki, a 56-year-old from Edmonton who, Dudley says, teaches squash clinics for a living and has “amazing style.” She beat Multamaki in four games.

Dudley finished the 2018–19 squash season as the fifth-ranked women’s singles player in Alberta, 100 pounds lighter than she’d been in 2017 and feeling genuinely happy. “Exercise does wonders for your mental health. It was like endorphins is what I needed,” she says between bites of veggie burger. “Just last spring, I was standing outside and I was like, ‘Holy shit, I’m happy.’ I literally stood in my backyard and said it out loud: ‘I’m actually happy.’ And then I started crying because I’m always going to be emo.”

When her friendship with Tylar eventually ended, Dudley went on a two-day bender, but pulled herself out of it and “decided not to go back to being a drunk.” She’s also faced disappointment pursuing the breast-reduction surgery, having been turned down by multiple doctors despite successfully meeting the weight-loss targets she’s been given.

Alex sees these reactions to disappointment as one of the clearest indicators of how far her sister has come. “She could use that to derail her progress and just say ‘Eff it,’” Alex says. “Instead, she was like, ‘Okay, how do I find another doctor?’”

Alex, who left behind the RCMP and a career as a firefighter and now works as a strength and conditioning coach with the Alberta Sport Development Centre and a performance specialist with Kinetisense, “a motion-capture software company,” supports Dudley any way she can — from exercise advice to arranging sponsorships. The sisters are as close as they’ve ever been.

“I never thought she’d have a relationship with my kids and now she does,” Alex says. “She’s actually Aunt Becks.”

HERE AND NOW
Despite losing in the main draw, Dudley won the consolation final at the 2019 Canadian Squash Championships

Game 2 is more competitive, but Izhar takes it 11–7. Dudley spends the break before they head back onto the court resting on the ground with her back against the glass wall and her legs stretched out in front of her. Now sponsored, she’s toned down her tournament outfits from the days when she wore, for example, a flamingo onesie between matches. Today, she’s in a black Oliver T-shirt, black shorts and mismatched Prince sneakers — the left one black-and-white, the right black-and-yellow. The black-and-yellow is slightly larger, so she wears an extra sock on her right foot — light grey with “GIRL POWER” in white on the side.

Hustling hard to open Game 3, she goes up 8–6, but that’s as close as she can get. She loses 11–8 on a shot that misses high. Smiling again, she holds the door for Izhar as they leave the court before heading outside to finish the second half of the cigarette she outed before warm-ups. As far as she knows, she’s the only competitor at the Canadian Squash Championships who smokes.

Dudley will go on to win the A division consolation finals in a couple of days, and after that she’ll head home and kill a couple of weeks before hitting the road. In 2017, just before she got sober, Dudley bought a 1979 Winnebago with financial help from some friends. It was her and Taffy’s dream to live in one, she says, driving from town to town and busking for gas money. She now spends most of her summers doing exactly that. She writes a lot about her travels, which usually begin by heading to Winnipeg for Pride and a visit with her dad.

She hasn’t planned too far beyond that — not yet at least. Down the line, though, she’d like to make a living in squash, ideally working with young players. “I think it’s so important getting kids involved in sports. ‘But,” she continues, improvising a speech to a young player, “‘don’t f–k up your life like I did.’

“Hopefully my wisdom will keep them in squash.”



Edited and designed by Craig Battle

Photo Credits

Sasha Barkans
Becks Dudley