Sunday, July 16, 2017

Sahan Peiris reflects on takeoffs and landings

There was a little boy once. He loved to perform cartwheels. So he wound up doing them everywhere, at his house and even outside. This boy, incidentally, had a sister who did athletics. She had practices. Their mother drove her. Because they couldn’t leave him behind, they took him along as well. While the sister practised, consequently, he did what he always used to do. Cartwheels. He would have been about four at the time. I don’t remember the year. In any case, it doesn’t matter.

At one of those practices, someone noticed this boy. He noticed him performing those cartwheels. He was impressed, so impressed that the next time he saw them, he asked the boy’s father to put him into gymnastics. Eventually, that’s what happened. He took to that game so well that not only did he wind up winning one tournament and meet after the other, he became a national champion. He won his first medal in 2005, became the All Island Champion six times in a row, and captained our team at certain regional tournaments (where he clinched the Number 16 rank in Asia).

But then time passed. That little boy grew up. He saw his friends, at school and elsewhere, taking to another sport. Diving. We don’t know what entranced him to it. Maybe it was the dive. Maybe it was the takeoff. Maybe it was that moment the body hit the water, the landing. Whatever it would have been, we do know that when he was in Grade Three, he joined his school’s diving squad. He has a longer, more extensive story there. And I’ve been asked to sketch that story.

The problem, however, is that I can’t swim. Never tried to, never bothered to. I do know about the immense strain divers put themselves to, the pain they endure, and the glory they achieve when they hit the water. But I doubt that’ll be enough for me to do justice to that boy’s story. I can try, of course. So here’s what Sahan Peiris, diver, gymnast, and a whole load of other things, had to tell me three weeks ago.

By his own confession, Sahan has always had a mischievous streak (not that he needs to tell me that, though: I sense that streak the moment we sit down and talk). That explains his childhood fondness for cartwheels, which he did to the consternation of his mother and despite his age. “I was in nursery when Dr Sarath Galagoda noticed me and advised my father to put me into gymnastics,” he remembers, “From then on, while it certainly wasn’t easy-peasy, I took to it spontaneously. I must have been blessed with a set of genes that made it more amenable to me, which is how I rose as the years progressed.” I ask him to list down his accolades, and he hands me a piece of paper on which he had recorded them all.

Needless to say, I am impressed. After winning his first medal and several interschool and island-wide championships, he ended up as a two-time National Runner Up and a two-time Junior National Champion. He captained the Under 19 national team at the 13th Junior Asian Championships (where he got that Number 16 rank), two years after which he did his O Levels (in 2013) and balanced studies, gymnastics, and diving. “I had about a year to decide. I couldn’t continue with both. So I let go of gymnastics. It was tough, particularly because I was the Number Two gymnast in the country, but I had to do it.”

And in any case, he has achieved considerably at diving. Before getting to those achievements, though, I ask him whether those childhood cartwheels helped. “Yes, but it was inbred. I can’t explain where I got that ability from. In any case, those cartwheels helped me ‘flex’ my body. That was needed in gymnastics. That was needed in diving too, especially after the takeoff: you are assessed on how well you maintain grace and balance before you hit the water. It must have been some strange destiny at work, but those cartwheels aided me there.”

2014 in that sense was a landmark year for him. At the National Championships that year, he had to perform a forward 3½ somersault pike dive (from 10 meters) on the third day. He had performed well at the practices, but for some reason he missed it at the finals. Having taken off rather clumsily, he missed the dive altogether and hit headfirst into the water. Predictably, Sahan had suffered a concussion and gone out. Having been taken out of the pool, he was admitted to Asiri Hospital.

What happened next? “I blacked out for 10 or 12 minutes. I spent about a couple of minutes at Asiri. The doctor gave me some pills after a small operation. My father, also a doctor, asked me to choose between staying there and going back. It was risky, with my mother imploring me to stay behind, but I wanted to return. I knew what I was trying to do. That emboldened me more, though it was probably the most dangerous thing a diver could attempt in my situation. In any case, I prevailed, not only because I completed that pike dive, but also because I won the tournament. Had I not gone back, I would have let my fears take over me. That would have been enough to discourage me from diving ever again.”

That incident had no doubt been a kind of culmination to all those years of trial and triumph before. Sahan’s achievements, incidentally, merit mention here. Having joined the school squad in Grade Three, he won his first medal in 2006 with five dives at that year’s Interschool Championship. From then on, naturally, the list gets bigger: as a nine-time Interschool Champion, a three-time National Diving Champion (2013, 2014, and 2015), and a one-time Junior National Champion (2010).

Internationally too he has won, having represented the country at the 7th AASF in Jakarta, Indonesia (2011) and the 18th Asian Swimming Championships in Dubai (2012), as well as having captained the national team at the 8th AASF in Bangkok, Thailand (2015). His most recent triumph was at the first ever South Asian Aquatic Championship (SAAC), organised last year by Sri Lanka, where he came third and clinched the Bronze Medal.

All these speak for themselves, yes. But they hardly go by way of summing up the boy behind those triumphs. So I ask him those other questions that delve into his life as a diver and how they’ve shaped his life in other fields. I begin with that forever clich├ęd question: “What has diving taught you?” Without any hesitation Sahan replies, “The need to face your fears, to build up confidence, courage, and perfection.”

I then ask him about his coaches, and he lists them out: “Mahinda Liyanage, Esiri Kankanige, and Chanaka Wickramasinghe. All three are from my school, Royal College, and all of them have triumphed in their field. They have helped me in different ways: Mahinda sir taught me the fundamentals, Esiri helped me execute hard dives, and Chanaka sir has been a mentor to me at school and as my national coach. That’s needed in this game, because when you are await the countdown, you need the confidence of your coach to push yourself and achieve that final, perfect takeoff and landing. In that respect, I believe I have been fortunate.”

Sahan has led other lives. He was the Secretary of his school’s Green Circle and was a member of the Entrepreneurs Society (he did Commerce for his A Levels last year), and is now the Senior Deputy Head Prefect. His also clinched the prestigious Royal Crown in 2015, becoming the first ever Royalist to win it for two sports (diving and gymnastics) in the same year. “I can’t really predict my future, but I hope to represent my country at the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games. I aim to give my best. Always.”

That little boy who performed cartwheels has grown up, in one sense. In another sense, though, he has not. Just as well, I should suppose: we all owe our childhoods for what we become, and take to, when we mature. Sahan has clearly grown up. But that process of growing up, of indulging in those two activities which have shaped him significantly, wouldn’t have been possible without those cartwheels he did, in another time, in another world. I’m sure he knows this. And I’m sure we all do.

Photos courtesy of

Written for: The Island YOUth, July 15 2017