Sunday, June 18, 2017

Samitha Abeyrathne’s return to form

Samitha Abeyrathne first took to table tennis when he was in Grade Two. He played, he tried, he lost, but he didn’t despair. He had a set of parents who empowered him and a coach they could all look up to. And did.

The predictable unfolded thereafter: he improved, became a champion at both school and national levels, and retained top form wherever he was and in whatever tournament he contended. He waded through the ranks, hard as it was and always will be, and topped the list.

But then, just like that, he quit. This disconcerts me somewhat, which is why I was heartened to get an interview with him on a cloudy Friday evening.

Samitha didn’t graduate to table tennis. It was the first activity he dabbled in at his school, Royal College, partly since he wore spectacles. “I would have found it difficult to play rugby or cricket. That is why my parents encouraged me to choose a ‘lighter’ sport. Moreover, because of a series of selections we had to undergo at that time, we were initiated into various activities. I ended up ‘getting’ table tennis.”

As I mentioned before, his debut matches didn’t end in triumph. All he did in his first two years was play for a couple of hours (at either S. Thomas’ College or the Sugathadasa Stadium) and come back home. His coach, Y. C. Thilakaratne, inferred some potential in him, which is why he took young Samitha for his private classes at Carey College. “I’d practice under him twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays if I remember correctly. He never overly pushed us. He made us understand how important the fundamentals of the game were when playing our way to the top. In other words, he was the role model I’d been after.”

Everything changed in 2003 (he was in Grade Six at the time) when he became the Under 11 All Island Champion, picking up the Number Three rank along the way. Samitha followed it up with a veritable set of achievements, some astounding and others predictable. He was the Under 13, Under 15, Under 18, and Under 21 National Champion, though this interests me less for its certificate-value than the anecdotes it contains. I therefore prod him on what led to what thereafter and how he ended up topping everyone else in the field. He readily obliges.

“I believe 2007 was a landmark year for me. I became the Under 15 Champion and the Number One player in that category. I also took part in both Under 18 and Open Men’s Doubles matches. I became one of the top eight Under 18 National players through them, tiring though they were, and graduated to the top four when I turned 16. In 2009 I became the Under 18 National Champion and the Number Two player. By April the following year, I had topped both Under 18 and Under 21 divisions.”

It was at that particular point that Samitha decided to quit. “I had to focus on my studies. Before I quit, however, I had one more encounter to paddle through. The Inter-School Table Tennis Tournament, slated for October, was shifted to April, less than four months away from my exams. Basically, we had just two weeks to prepare ourselves! It was certainly challenging. Not just challenging, but discouraging.”

That match (which deserves a footnote to itself) figures in Samitha’s memory as his most memorable, so much so that it’s best recounted in his own words. So here goes.

“We went to it famished and depressed. We didn’t feel as though we’d prepped ourselves enough. That’s probably why we lost our first match. But then, when subsequent matches came, we picked up. We went on winning until the finals, where we were pitted against Maliyadeva. We lost to them in the first two singles and won over them in the third. The last two singles, the most decisive ones, were played from our side by me and Kulanaka Hendahewa. It was tense and even excruciating, but we won both, acing Maliyadeva 3-2 and clinching the Under 19 A Division All Island Inter-School Team Championship. That was the first time I won a 19 A match, moreover. In any case, we had proven ourselves. We had prevailed.”

After the celebrations and accolades that victory necessitated sobered down, Samitha resumed his studies, sitting for his A Levels (he offered Maths) and later entering the Kotelawala Defence University for a degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering, along with Achievers Business Campus for CIMA. Done with both last year, he now aims for a career in Management, though that part of his life is yet to unfold and can’t be charted. Given that he left table tennis six years ago and that he’s done with his higher education for now, is a return imminent?

“It’s not easy to regain form once you’ve left it for a long, long time,” Samitha replies seriously, “I gave playing at tournaments for six years and didn’t touch a racket for two years. Mind you, no matter how much of a top contender you would have been before, you’re useless if you don’t practice. I didn’t. Now I’ve started playing for fun, but whether or not I’ll resume it professionally remains to be seen. What I can ponder on right now, apart from my career to come, is what I’ve learnt from the game.”

I ask him here to elaborate on what exactly he has learnt. “When I started playing, I didn’t know what I’d take to in table tennis. Eventually I realised that you need concentration more than stamina to ace at it. The latter is more or less a quality every sportsman has, but concentration, or your ability to focus and keep up with time, is more vital. That is what my coaches – Mr Thilakaratne, Mr N. H. Perera, Mr Nuwan Sampath, Mr Indika Prasad, and Mrs Deepika Rodrigo – taught me. It helped me in my other pursuits.”

What were those other pursuits exactly? Samitha was involved in various Clubs and Societies at his school, including the Philatelic Club. He had also been a Junior Steward and subsequently a Prefect. At KDU he had been involved in the Rotaract Club. Among the many accolades he got courtesy of these activities, one stands out: the Royal Crown, the most prestigious award a student can clinch at Royal College, bestowed on him in 2011 on account of (what else?) his stints at table tennis.

And in a way, his school career precipitated some impressive victories abroad. As a final summing up, therefore, I ask him to recount the most memorable match he played overseas and what he’d like to say to aspiring players.

Regarding the first point, Samitha remembers the Taiyuan International Open Junior Table Tennis Championship, held in 2004. “We clinched the Silver Medal in the Under 12 category. It was a difficult tournament to get through, because one of my two partners, Chameera Ginige, was down with a fever. I won the first single, Chameera lost the second, my other partner Hasintha Sashiranga closed the third at 10-12, and I was left with the task of winning the last singles AND the country’s honour. If I lost, we wouldn't get even a Bronze Medal. To complicate matters even further, I had to contend against the Number One player from Qatar. That I got to ace him 10-4 despite this was a miracle.”

Regarding the second point, he tells me that the best he can say to those who pursue table tennis is to keep on trying. “I faced a number of losses in my first few years. I could have given up. I did not. My parents knew what I was in for more than I ever did. So did my coaches. They kept on pushing me. I appreciate that. I would hence like to offer this piece of advice: never forget your fundamentals. Even with the most ‘sophisticated’ tournaments, they can help you. Big time.”

Racket games in general intrigue me. Not because they are qualitatively different to other more vigorous sports, but because they teeter between proximity and distance in a way which pits one player against the other while compelling him or her to empathise, to understand. Regrettably, though, I don’t have the kind of patience such activities require. Samitha, going by that, has exceeded everything he’s taken part in. To the dot. His return to form will therefore be awaited. By us. Right until the end.

Written for: The Island YOUth, June 18 2017