Peiris the Lankan hope in swimming

The inner story of a story of grit and silver

Young Palitha Bandara was crazy when the 1996 Cricket World Cup in action, but at the Millaniya Village where he did his studies, there was no such facility or anyway avenue to have access to a television, so he sadly resigned to that fate.  Then, when celebrity athletes in the calibre of Susanthika Jayasinghe and Damayanthi Darsha performed, he cut their pictures and pasted in his scrapbook, or even pasted them in his wall. Yet, for him to have the real taste of sport, he had to finish his obligations with the Sri Lanka Army and the see the light at the end of the tunnel after the 30-year war. 

There, he learned the finer points of playing Volleyball and soon was a member of the Army National Guard Regimental Volleyball pool, and for him being selected from around 17,000 soldiers, was a huge achievement. 

Could he call that a fateful day? On 2013 November 13 at the Nochchiyagama Camp court, a friend fell on him and the end result was he ended up with an ACL injury and a new prosthetic kneecap. His first part of his sports dream had ended there, but, inner drive said, that there is a way out. “In 2012 while in the Army, I saw a para athlete by the name of Predeep Sanjaya winning a Paralympic Bronze and suddenly, I decided that this is going to be my destiny.  But, still I was in crutches. My friends also gave me the much needed moral support to become a Para Athlete.”

“Even today the real Doctors are for him to be on crutches in my day-to-day activity.” Then Palitha delved into the reason why he has to believe in the Rubber-ball theory. “I was born in the Village of Thalagoda in the Matale District, but soon my family moved to Millaniya – my mother’s village to enable for me and my two siblings to do their schooling.  My father was a daily wage earner, mostly working in a rock quarry or engage in sand mining for a trader.  Meanwhile my mother moved to an overseas location seeking greener pastures, but in general, it was a struggle to eke out a living until I joined the Army.  I was always a survivor not ready surrender meekly. I decided that I was stop and lay down with my knee injury, so I decided to seek my future in sitting volleyball.  Being a member of the sitting volleyball unit, I got my first opportunity compete overseas in 2017.

“Even during that period I was engaged in shot put and discus throw, but it was only a hobby at that time. Then under C.T. Anurakumara, I delved into serious training in these two sports in Nochchiyagama. However, after around two and a half months I was moved back to the Kurunegala camp. Then even without a proper coach I continued with my training via-YouTube.

“Suddenly at that juncture, the National Paralympic Committee invited me to move to Colombo promising coaching assistance and help said that there is long road ahead of you in Paralympics. In 2018 in preparation to the Asian Paralympic Championships I was put under Pradeep Nishantha and won the Silver in the shot put with a distance of 13.21 metres.

“In 2019 I took part in the World Paralympic Games in Dubai and in that effort I was placed 8th. In 2020, I had the opportunity of teaming up with Prabhath Dhanushka Perera as coach and in February 2021 I took part in the shot put at the Grand Prix in Dubai and I won the third place there with a distance of 13.41 metres. With that I qualified for the Paralympic Games and I ended up at the 5th place.”   

Soon after he and his coach were told that they had to prepare for the 2022 Commonwealth Games, but, ironically they had to change sport to Men’s F42-44/61-64 discus throw because the shot put was not there in the list. “I was told that I had to prepare to take part in the Discus Throw. At the same time, the National Olympic Committee afforded me the opportunity of taking part in the Commonwealth GAPS programme, where they give special training to Para-athletes prior to the games. As I was among the first five performers at the Paralympics, I got this opportunity. There, I was put under a high performance coach from New Zealand John Eden – who happens to be New Zealand’s first ever Paralympian.  From him, I learned a lot to polish up my discus throw and up to date, I work with him through video.   

“Changing from the put shot to serious discus throw itself was a huge challenge. I was committed to the shot put throw for almost four years prior to that. I only had about seven months to become a fully-fledged discus thrower. On top of that, they gave me a target of clearing 40 metres. Then in April 2022 at a GAPS competition – this was by another para athletic championship in Britain, I cleared 40.20 metres and qualified to take part at the games proper.

“Then through the GAPS programme, I underwent further training in Birmingham and this was before the start of the real programme got underway. It was on June 17 2022 and I had time to prepare as my event was take place on August 3 2022.  As a result, I had sufficient time to acclimatize myself to the Birmingham conditions.”

Palitha said the climate was always in the region of 16 to 17 degrees. Then he and his coach Prabhath decided as his event was going to be held around 8.45 in the evening, to do most of our training during that time. Then when the real date of the competition arrived, I was ready for the climatic aspect of it.

“However the day of the real thing - the atmosphere was almost electric. The din was almost deafening. In spite of standing so close to each other, I could not hear what my coach was telling me. Luckily, it was not so cold for us that day, but, my other Asiatic competitors were feeling the cold. Maybe because Yupun moved there from Italy, he also could stand up to the situation there, and I was sharing the stadium the same day.  At the same time, I could feel - when some other competitors were receiving huge cheering I had none. But, that did not matter at all.

“I had not seen such crowed before; it was awe-inspiring.  I was really frightened when I took my first throw. For the first time, I engaged in an international competition of this magnitude.  Yet, in the back of my mind, I wanted to prove my worth.

“By my side, there were two Indian and two British competitors, but, I knew that they were feeling the cold more than me and I was more comfortable than them at that moment.  In fact, they were getting cramps because of the cold. Then after the third throw, I had that inner feeling that I was line of a medal of some nature. I reached my peak during the third and fourth throws, yet, I did not know that I really had won a medal at that time.

“Then, on the other side, Yupun had got his Bronze Medal and I rushed to congratulate the 100metres runner for his achievement. Upon my return, I did my sixth throw, but there I had touched the line. But, it was in my fifth attempt that I made the difference and sealed the fate. I had cleared a distance of 44.20m to clinch the silver medal, which had also happened to be my new personal best. I did it for my country and I am really happy that I was a part of the country’s celebrations.”