Scripting a new chapter

AFTER ALL, she is human too. The exploits on the synthetic track in her now-famous 100m sprint are not just what make the `Sprint Queen' from Colombo, Susanthika Jayasinghe, feel proud of.

V. V. SUBRAHMANYAM

Susanthika Jayasinghe acknowledges the cheers after winning the women's 100m in a new meet record of 11.30 seconds in the Hyderabad leg of the Asian Grand Prix.-Pic. MD. YOUSUF

AFTER ALL, she is human too. The exploits on the synthetic track in her now-famous 100m sprint are not just what make the `Sprint Queen' from Colombo, Susanthika Jayasinghe, feel proud of. Leave the stunning performance in the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games which earned her the bronze in 100m — the only athletic medal from the sub-continent, and the subsequent blaze of glory in the 2002 Asian Games in Busan. What 28-year Susanthika is now looking for is to be a mother.

For someone who is gunning for a gold in the 2004 Athens Olympics despite a lay-off after she pulled a hamstring during the 200m in the Busan Asian Games last year, Susanthika knows her priorities. The star athlete, who virtually ushered in a revolution of sorts at least in terms of catching the media attention and the fan in the street by her stunning feats, is pretty much aware that it is not going to be all that rosy to realise her life-time ambition of winning a gold in the next Olympics. What she is banking on is the tremendous self-confidence and the meticulous planning she is trying to incorporate in her sincere efforts. The US-based coach, who is now more of an advisor, Tony Campbell, is a constant source of inspiration for this amazing athlete. And, complementing the right words of wisdom is the guidance being given by her husband, Dammika Nanda Kumara.

The one-time village girl from Uduwaka, a one-hour journey from Colombo, is determined to push the Lankans to the pedestal of glory. "It is not cricket (referring to Arjuna Ranatunga's 1996 World Cup victory) that gave us a place in the annals of sporting history. It is also athletics which has done the country proud," she says frankly. The fact that Susanthika, who took to the sport at the age of eight when she first visited Colombo and attributes her change in attitude to the keen interest and encouraging words of the Sports Development Officer, Dammika, has endorsement deals signed with the US-Nike, a leading soft drink and a detergent is proof that she has certainly scripted a new chapter in Sri Lanka's sporting history, particularly in athletics.

Susanthika and Damayanthi Darsha are clearly the two icons of not just Sri Lankan athletics. They belong to the elite group from the Asian continent. No doubt, during their brief stay in Hyderabad for the second Asian Grand Prix meet they did give an impression that they do not mingle as freely as one would have expected but they have tremendous respect for each other's achievements. "Yes, it is a fact that Damayanthi was the more established athlete before I broke into the big league and her feats did have an influence on me," she remarked. But, the innate zeal to make a mark for herself at the highest level is what took Susanthika to new heights in the sport. Known for her fabulous and graceful style of sprinting, this Sri Lankan seems to know when exactly she has to accelerate to leave the immediate challengers on the track far behind. This was amply evident by the way the Lankan Queen in a sudden burst of acceleration at the 80-metre mark left behind the Uzbek girl, Guzel Khubbieva, to set a new meet record of 11.30 to that of Uzbek's 11.35. Susanthika's only defeat of the four leg Asian Grand Prix was also at the hands of Guzel in the third leg.

"Mentally, I was prepared to put in just 80 per cent effort, for this was my first competitive race after the last Asian Games. The fear of aggravating the hamstring injury was always there. So, when I was surprised by the speed with which the Uzbek girl ran initially, I told myself why not try, if not go all out, to accelerate. And, I am happy that I could succeed despite the bad starting blocks which posed problems for all the athletes," she explained after the race, on the sidelines of the track, before going for the dope tests.

Well, when an athlete of Susanthika's stature speaks, it should make sense. Like the unusually frank manner in which she made caustic comments on some of the Asian coaches. "The big difference is that the foreign coaches don many roles including that of a friend, a frank advisor and a quality trainer. They don't hesitate to carry the kit-bags of the athletes. They are so caring and never treat the assignment as a business," Susanthika explained. "It is imperative for the Asians too to follow that style for better results. They should know the art of getting the best from the athletes by making them feel comfortable and relaxed before a big race. There is no point in brain-storming sessions suggesting to do this and that and not be seen anywhere at the time of the race. This is a major problem area for some of the highly talented athletes," she explained to another query.

There is something to cheer about for the Asians when Susanthika strongly believes that in terms of talent, they are not far behind the best in the world. What we need is more and more exposure and the self-confidence that we can excel under trying circumstances, she added.

What are her future plans? Apparently, she will love to give something back to the sport once she quits the scene. And, Susanthika is keen to start a full-fledged Academy to tap and nurture talent. A keen follower of cricket and who has a very good personal relationship with some of the big names of the sport back home, this gifted athlete is equally enthusiastic that the assembly line of athletes should not dry up back home and every effort should be made to sustain the interest of the youngsters in the sport. If the Lankans and to a large extent the Asians need any inspirational success story of a village girl going on to become the cynosure of all eyes in the world of athletics, Susanthika Jayasinghe should provide the perfect example.