Kegalle is a town between the highlands and the lowlands of the Island and is famous for being the center of Sri Lanka’s short and middle-distance running talent.
With over 70% of the country’s population living in rural areas of the Island, it’s only natural for talent to seep through from those villages. Sure, the lack of infrastructure and financial resources make it very difficult for athletes from these areas to make it amongst the crème de la crème but that being said, there are several sportspersons who have defied the odds to run their way to the summit, in reality a rough climb. Susanthika Jayasinghe was also once a little girl who learnt the footsteps of sprinting in the outskirts of the region, she went on to win the world without the sufficient facilities at her feet until later in her glittering career.
However, even from the area of many sprinters, one school still stands tall, surpassing the other schools – popular in the Athletic world, hidden from the rest of the Island, St. Joseph’s Convent Kegalle. No other non-sporting high school in the Island has raised and educated so many national champions and on more occasions than not, international athletes.
The fastest South Asian woman over the 100m currently, Rumeshika Rathnayake is a product of St. Joseph’s College Kegalle. She won the Gold medal in 100m women’s finals at South Asian Games 2016 held in Guwahati, India and also managed to win the Bronze in 200m finals at the same competition, She clocked her personal best time of 23.40 seconds at Bhuwaneswar during Asian Championship 2017 200m heats and won the Silver medal in the finals with 23.43 seconds making her a true standout in the Sri Lankan circuit.
Rumeshika Kumari Ratnayake of St. Joseph’s Balika Maha Vidyalaya, Kegalle became the ‘Queen of Athletics’ bettering two national records established 21 years ago by legendary sprinter Damayanthi Dharsha at the 35th Junior National Athletics Championship held the Mahinda Rajapaksa Stadium, Diyagama to stamp her authority in the field of Sri Lankan athletics in the early days of her career.
Rumeshika made a name for herself as a SJB girl as she outdid the record of Dharsha set in 1993 as a schoolgirl from Ladies’ College (12.0secs) with a new time of 11.80secs in the 100m. In the 200 metres event Rumeshika with a time of 24.12secs smashed the record held by the former Asian Games Gold medalist as her second new mark. The interesting feature of her achievements at the time was that Rumeshika Kumari lowered Dharsha’s 100m record twice when she first timed 11.85secs in the heats and clocking 11.80secs in the final run for her school. This sterling performance by the young lass from Kegalle back in the day signaled the appearance of another Susanthika Jayasinghe.
In the recent past, many girls from St Joseph’s, Kegalle have gone on to win the Island. Amongst them are Sandumini Bandara, who managed to win the U18 400m at the Junior Nationals which was held at the Sugathadasa Stadium with a performance of 57.54 secs and qualified for the South Asian Junior Athletic Championship while Madara Weerasooriya came 2nd in the 100m at the same championship.
Over the years St. Joseph’s Balika have been winning the overall championships with both Athletes winning major honors at the nationals, relay carnivals and the John Tarbet Championships. Sandumini Bandara has been the next champion, making the 400m sprints her own. She also took part in the recently concluded Asian games in Japan after the stellar performances at the Junior Nationals.
Even though the Athletes of the school have gone on to win the world, they have come to the very summit through an extremely rough climb. People know of their success story but the secret behind their success story is well- hidden beyond the territories of the Kegalle District.
Both girls continue to impress at the national levels over and over again, trying to make a name for themselves as if the facilities they have available are no obstruction along their path.
The District of Kegalle has just one ground of sufficient quality for Athletes to train, hence the junior national champions start their journey to training in the early hours of the day. A 2-hour walk can be avoided only if they are lucky enough to catch a bus to attend practice at 6am. They train along with all the other athletes who use the grounds in the early hours of the day.
They then journey back to school after practice, most often missing the 1st couple of periods of the day. Even with these obstacles, they still pursue their dreams of achieving glory for the country.
Parents present at the Junior Nationals added, “The kids don’t want to let go of the sport. It’s because of their love for the sport that we also sacrifice so much to support them, or else we would not be too keen on the sport. It’s been 2 years since the foundation was laid to build a new ground for training, yet there’s still no stadium.”
Even though they spoke words of disappointment, one who would look closely would see that they still have the tiniest hope that their daughters would go on to make a career out of the sport that they love.
The re-laying of the Sugathadasa track opened doors for junior Sri Lankan sprinters to run in record after record at the South Asians, Junior nationals and Asian qualifiers. This all came about thanks to the new track which had been substandard for many years previously. A similar plan will be needed in Kegalle to renew the passion for Athletics that has lived on despite the hardships.