Last year, when Sri Lanka was busy winning medals at the South Asian Games and the congratulatory posts flooded social media, there was a thing that escaped everyone’s notice.
Sri Lanka’s long-distance running icon Hiruni Kesara Wijayaratne pulled out of the 10000m after her legs gave up mid-way through the race.
Having qualified for both the 5000m, 10000m and the Marathon, the 29-year-old had to make a tough choice in the conditions to let go of the 5000m to focus on her pet event, the marathon.
With one of her events ending in disappointment, Hiruni did not give into her pain. The brave athlete fought through pain, jetlag and illness and stormed through to the Gold in the Marathon.
Eight months later, Hiruni Wijayaratne rose out of the grasp of a pandemic with a majestic finish at the Music City Distance Festival, clocking a personal best in the women’s 5000m and a new national record with a time of 16:17.51 minutes.
It was a slight improvement from South Asian gold medalist Nilani Rathnayake’s time of 16:17.82 minutes set at the 2019 Army Athletic meet.
“I didn’t think I would get the opportunity to step on a track in 2020. But an opportunity came, and I couldn’t be more thankful” added Hiruni, whose training in the last three months were limited to her backyard.
Sports fans took to social media to celebrate her victory that came early Sunday (16th) morning. After what seemed like an endless stream of news on sporting events being cancelled one after the other, this news re-ignited some happiness in the sports fans back home.
“Thanks for the thousand thoughtful wishes from around the world. Training during the pandemic was so difficult but worth every sacrifice to raise the Lion Flag high once more!” added the new 5000m national record holder.
Had 2020 panned out as expected, the Sri Lankan star would’ve been on a return flight from Narita, Tokyo after a successful (we hope) Olympic games.
In 2016 she missed her chance to make the Olympics owing to government authorities failing to process her dual citizenship request.
So, 2020 was all about the Olympics for the 29-year-old. After her greatest year on the track in 2019 with 6 national records and a South Asian record for the marathon, it was all about qualifying for the big dance.
But the Covid19 outbreak worldwide meant that Hiruni’s Olympic dream would have to wait a year.
“The goal is still the same as its always been. To see the Lankan flag fly high inside the Olympic stadium”
Obstacles aren’t something new for the 29-year-old. From getting her university scholarship cut to later making her way out on her own while continuing her running career, Hiruni is and has always been a fighter.
When she missed out on the 2016 Rio Olympics and the South Asian Games that year, she was still determined to make her mark for Sri Lanka.
That day finally came in 2017 at the World Championships.
“It was the happiest moment in my athletic life. Not only was I able to represent my country, but also it was in my favourite event! (the marathon)”
Her debut, unfortunately, was short-lived and she had to exit the race halfway due to an illness. But, she didn’t stop there!
Two years from that day, when the whole of Sri Lanka was mourning after the Easter Attacks, she took the island into the headlines, winning silver at the 2019 Düsseldorf Marathon in Germany with a new Sri Lankan and South Asian record.
“Today I ran with more than just my legs, but my heart. When my legs started to give up at 35k, I reminded myself this pain is nothing compared to what so many people experienced last Sunday (April 21st 2019)”
While the entire country mourned the loss of its children, Hiruni’s win in Germany made the entire country stop and smile for a bit.
In exactly a year, it will be time for the Tokyo Olympics. For many athletes like Hiruni, it will be a challenge to work their way into the games.
But seeing what she has done and what kind of individual she is, it wouldn’t be wise to bet against her making it into the games.
Maybe, she will make the country smile again.