ANATOMY OF A CHAMPION
Allaam Ousman chronicles the career of LMD’s Sri Lankan Of The Year
“Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them” – an oft-quoted line from William Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night.
Tharushi Karunarathna may not have been born with a silver spoon in her mouth but the lass from a remote hamlet in Kandy charted her destiny with determination, dedication and discipline to be on the cusp of achieving greatness.
Following her epoch making feat of becoming the first Sri Lankan to win a gold medal in athletics after 21 years at the Asian Games, she has been hailed as one of the greatest athletes the country has produced.
She now has many godfathers who are falling over each other to shower her with riches. There are even offers to take her to the ‘Promised Land’ away from this beautiful paradise isle, which has nurtured her talents. Without taking anything away from her monumental feat, we should remember that one swallow does not a summer make.
It is a cliché to say that a sporting star has recently been born in Sri Lanka. Nay, this gem was unearthed some years ago by talent scouts of the National Olympic Committee (NOC) Shehan Ambepitiya and Ineka Cooray, and polished by renowned coach Susantha Fernando.
For more than three decades, Fernando has been producing diamonds at A. Rathnayake Central College in Walala.
OLYMPIC MEDAL As a young girl, Tharushi had dreams of becoming a pilot but her ambition of winning an Olympic medal seems to have given her wings to fly – almost effortlessly it would seem – past her rivals on the track.
However, lest we get carried away and put undue pressure on this young star to bring home a medal from the Paris Olympics; let us treasure the moment that satiated the appetite of a nation starved of real heroes.
Thankfully, unlike many others who bask in fame and glory, Tharushi has her feet planted firmly on the ground. She was coy and even seen giggling like any regular teenager during media interviews that followed her historic achievement.
EXAMINATIONS Having turned 19 on 18 November, a month after her magnificent golden run, she has knuckled down to study for the A-Level exam. Tharushi is displaying the same focus and preparation she undertakes before a race in her studies as well… without getting her priorities mixed up in life.
“I want to get through my A-Level exam and also qualify to take part in the 2024 Paris Olympics,” she replied, when asked about her future plans.
Unspoilt by the adulation she now receives from a grateful nation hungry for small mercies, Tharushi does not show any eagerness to venture overseas for her higher studies or training like many other athletes before her.
It may be in the pipeline but she doesn’t want to jump on that bandwagon and disrupt the successful programme devised by her coach.
COMPETITIONS “My plan is to send her for at least three international competitions in Europe in a bid to qualify for the Paris Olympics,” says Fernando.
He believes that Tharushi is capable of achieving a time of 1 minute 54 seconds in the 800 metres, which is well above the Olympic Entry Standard of 1:59.06 for the event.
“She has no competition in Asia and can improve her timings by competing in European competitions,” he notes, adding that Tharushi was at her peak during the Asian Games.
STRATEGY “I was confident of winning the gold medal even before going to China for the Asian Games. And I was sure of winning after planning the race strategy with my coach,” explains Tharushi, when asked how she won a coveted gold.
Her supreme confidence was derived from the fact that she clocked 2:00:06 to win the gold medal in the women’s 800m race at the Asian Athletics Championships in Bangkok. She set a new Asian record, which had stood for quarter of a century and erased the mark of 2:01.16 set by Zhang Sian (China) in 1998.
Karunarathna also anchored Sri Lanka’s 4x400m mixed relay team that set a new national record of 3:15.41 to win the silver medal.
Prior to that in June, she won the gold in the 800m women’s race at the Asian Junior Athletic Championships in Yecheon, South Korea, in addition to a silver (400m) and gold (4x400m mixed relay).
RECORDS “She shattered Sri Lanka’s junior national and national records, apart from the Asian Championship record. Tharushi was running at her peak. She would have won with better timing at the Asian Games in the 800m final but was slowed down by pacesetters in the first lap. At the Asian Championship she did a 58.0 (first lap) but it was 62 in the Asian Games,” says Fernando.
He adds: “Until 400 metres, everyone was in a bunch. We planned a tactical race and went only for the gold medal with Tharushi dashing to the finish in the last 60 metres ahead of the Chinese runner who began sprinting from 100 metres.”
Overwhelmed by the support she has received from well-wishers and fans in Sri Lanka, Tharushi explains: “I am very happy to win a gold medal for Sri Lanka and I’m also glad it brought happiness to many people who watched me running. And I think I managed to win a gold medal for Sri Lanka after 21 years thanks to their blessings.”
The second child in a humble family of three from Hasalaka, Tharushi blossomed into a star athlete through hard work and determination. She initially competed in the 100m and 200m events at her village school’s inter-house meet after her first coach Pushpa Kumudini noticed Tharushi’s talent.
As a 15-year-old sprinter, she blazed to glory at the All Island Schools Games Athletics Championships and set new records in the 400m and 800m events in the Under 16 Girls category.
She scorched the track at the Sugathadasa Stadium by clocking personal bests of 56.54 (400m) and 2:14.00 (800m) – timings that were better than those of winners in the higher age categories. She also set a new 800m record of 2:17.00 at the Sir John Tarbat Senior Athletics Championship in 2019.
Her coach Fernando told this writer a few years ago: “She will not only represent Sri Lanka, she will definitely win medals at the Asian level because she has talent and skills.”
TALENT During a recent interview with LMD, Fernando explained that “Tharushi was 13 when she came to me and was doing 100m and 200m events. At the beginning, we did a talent identification test to see whether she’s a sprinter or long-distance runner. It was then that I realised she would be good for 400m and 800m; and we began training her accordingly.”
He recalls: “She did not make strides at the Under 14 level because I don’t train for competition. However, in her first year in Under 16, she was placed third in the 800m and sixth place in the 400m final at the All Island Schools Games Athletics Championships.”
“But the following year, she broke records in the 400m and 800m – records held by Dilshi Kumarasinghe who was also training under me. Then I predicted to the media that she will pose the biggest challenge to Dilshi and Tharushi proved me right.”
Fernando has been serving as Assistant Director of Physical Education and Sports in the Wattegama Education Zone since 2003. He has produced 68 Sri Lankan international medallists.
BRONZE MEDAL Having been a member of the 4x400m relay team that won the All Island Schools Games Athletics Championships in record time in 2018, Tharushi’s first significant individual accomplishment was a bronze medal in the 800m at the Junior Nationals that year.
Her inspiration has been her brother Harsha, who won a silver medal in the 800m at the 2017 Asian Youth Athletics Championships in Thailand.
“My target is to run 400m in 54 seconds and 800m in 2:10,” Tharushi told this writer back in 2020, when she was selected as one of two junior athletes for the NOCSL-Crysbro scholarship programme for two years.
ACHIEVER “What Tharushi has done is tremendous because winning an Asian Games gold medal at this age is a significant achievement. The Asian Championships and Asian Games are at two different levels. She won both and that’s a huge victory,” says Ambepitiya, who won three gold medals at the 2008 Commonwealth Youth Games.
He adds: “We saw her structure, and how determined and strong she is. The way she runs is amazing and we’re really happy to have sponsored her for two years. When we saw her timing, we did an analysis and compared her with top youth athletes in Asia. At that time, she was within the top three. In fact, we predicted that she’d win at the Asian junior and senior championships.”
Fascinated by her victory, Ambepitiya continues: “When it came to the Asian Games, I had a little doubt whether she could do it at this age. What she has done is amazing. She has determination, dedication, discipline and a good coach.”
And he explains why it took so long for Sri Lanka to strike gold so to speak: “It’s all about the skills of athletes and the identification of talent. Out of 100 athletes, only one or two can win at this level. Winning the Asian Games is another standard. We have to identify skilled athletes and support them. But unfortunately, there is no proper system here. They perform well in school but fade into oblivion later.”
OLYMPICS Ambepitiya says: “Obviously, she can make the Olympics. Being in the semifinals or final itself will be a huge win. After 2000 (Susanthika Jayasinghe in Sydney), we haven’t been in the semifinals or finals. She should target the semis in 2024, which will be a huge win; and try for a final place in 2028 in Los Angeles.”
However, he cautions that people shouldn’t pin all their hopes on her since the right time hasn’t arrived as yet.
Ambepitiya (who trained alongside the great Usain Bolt) notes that many athletes have failed despite being sent overseas for training: “I had the experience for two years but it didn’t work for me. I believe there is a misconception that if you’re running fast, you have to go to Jamaica; and if you are middle distance runner, Kenya is good. This perception is totally wrong.”
TECHNOLOGY “What we should do is send them to where they can gain from technology. We need technology, nutrition and biomechanical support to improve technique. If Yupun Abeykoon had gone to Jamaica, he would never have run under 10 seconds. Since he went to Italy, he was able to do that,” Ambepitiya points out.
He adds: “If they can send her along with her coach for three to six months to Europe or the US, it would be ideal. With the experience I had, I believe that this is what she needs.”
Another veteran athletic official G. L. S Perera believes that Tharushi will be a good prospect for an Olympic medal in the women’s 1,500m event: “She is young, and has speed and endurance. And she’s ideal to compete over 1,500 metres in the 2028 Olympics.”
Her coach aptly sums up Tharushi’s potential: “She is a national treasure; she has only achieved 50 percent of her potential and can participate in three or even four Olympics – but we are taking one step at a time. If she is handled with care, Tharushi can go a long way.”
“As a young girl, Tharushi had dreams of becoming a pilot but her ambition of winning an Olympic medal seems to have given her wings to fly”
“My plan is to send her for at least three international competitions in Europe in a bid to qualify for the Paris Olympics”
DISSANAYAKA MUDIYANSELAGE THARUSHI DILSARA KARUNARATHNA
DATE OF BIRTH
18 November 2004
Hasalaka – Ududumbara (Kandy)
A. Rathnayake Central College (Walala)