Sunday, August 20, 2017

Hashen Hettigoda rows on ahead

The first few weeks, months, and years of trying out a new sport are never easy. You get injured, poked at, ridiculed, sometimes put down, and always intimidated. It’s probably that fear of being intimidated, or the anxiety of being in front of a large cheering crowd, that kept me from trying out anything at school, period. That’s a given. Some like to go ahead, others stay back. Those who stay back are blessed with the privilege of knowing they won’t be subject to the vicissitudes of victory and defeat those who go ahead are. Again, a given.

But what’s so difficult about those first few years is also what’s so manageable about them. There’s always a team to back you up, for one thing. It doesn’t matter how tough the competition from the other side can get, or how futile victory is to achieve. Once you’re in that team, you’re in. All honorifics disappear, name-calling becomes a no-no, and the individual gets subsumed by the group. Nowhere is truer than activities that force their team players to literally be at each other’s side.

I’m thinking here of rowing. Sri Lanka is of course no stranger to that sport, but with the recent spate of setbacks certain other activities and their national squads have undergone abroad, the country’s interest in it has improved. Rather considerably.

Those setbacks, incidentally, have compelled me to value one quality in those who take to a sport, any sport. Consistency. That’s what sets those I’ve interviewed for this column, for this paper, apart from their opponents. And that’s what sets the person I’ve interviewed this week apart from his competition. Hashen Hettigoda, who’s been rowing for more than six years, and has won practically every top rank a player his age (and above it) can, has come quite close to substantiating my preference for consistency over one hit victories. He clearly doesn’t belong to the latter category.

Hashen’s stints at rowing go back to 2009. They actually go even further back, considering that the first sport he’d indulged in was rugby and considering that he’d shifted gears after fracturing his leg twice during practices. That accident had got his mother worried, which, coupled with the one-and-a-half months he had to wait recuperating from his injuries, meant that he was open to other paths. It didn’t take long for him to find his own path.

“I was in Grade Six at the time. During those one-and-a-half months, I went to a friend’s grandfather’s funeral. There I met the rowing coach at my school, who happened to be another friend’s uncle. One thing led to another, and he ended up inviting me to a practice session. Normally I wouldn’t have gone, except for one issue: I was rather fat back then. I was dieting and badly wanted to get leaner. So I agreed with him then and there. And so soon enough I was going for those practices.”

That was in 2010. After around a year of those training sessions, Hashen entered his first tournament, a two kilometre open race at the Bolgoda Lake. He clinched a gold medal there, which had naturally encouraged him. “I won in the Under 13 category. I believe that first victory pushed me to try and triumph at tournaments which were beyond my age. Fortunately for me, that’s exactly what happened.”

A cursory list can’t really sum up all his subsequent achievements, but I’ll try at one all the same. Hashen has emerged as the Under 13, Under 14, Under 18, and Under 20 top national rower. In 2014, having contended at school and national level regattas, he was part of the contingent that left for Taiwan for the Asian Junior Rowing Championship. He was ranked as the eighth Under 18 Asian oarsman there. “Taiwan opened my eyes. We are improving as a nation, but we are nowhere near the East Asians. I was actually lucky to be in the team that went there, lucky because I was selected after I beat my opponent to become the top sculler in the country.”

And that list doesn’t stop there. He clinched gold medals for the Under 18 Scull and the Under 19 Quad Scull at the Head of Bay Regatta in Hong Kong this year. He came second at the Scull and first at the Double Scull at the recently held ARAE Regatta in India. Last year he was in the Rutherglen Regatta in Melbourne, Australia, where he won second place in the Open Eight and third place in the Open Four. Around that time, he also clinched the 13th Under 18 rank at the Asian Junior Rowing Championship in Pattaya, Thailand. The Asian Junior Rowing Development Camp, organised by the International Rowing Federation and the Asian Rowing Federation and held in Taiwan, as well as the Madras-Colombo Regatta, held in Sri Lanka (both in 2014), are two other tournaments where he got to represent his country.

Quite obviously, his motives at playing the game changed over the years. The fatty kid no more, Hashen got entranced by the sense of camaraderie which brought the rowing crew together at his school, Royal College. “In rugby, the team is spread across a field. In rowing, by contrast, you are tied to your partner. You need to be at one with him and to develop a brotherhood. That’s why we don’t have ‘aiyas’ and ‘mallis’ in our squad. Age isn’t what matters. What matters is how you blend in with the rest.”

Having blended into his team, Hashen hence didn’t take much time to get into the most looked forward to tournament in his school calendar, the Royal-Thomian Regatta. The past few years hadn’t fared well for the Royalists: a string of victories in 2010 and 2011 had been followed by a set of devastating defeats.

“Our morale was ebbing away, to be honest. We needed just the tiniest of victories to keep us going. In 2014, the year I left for Taiwan, we lost again. But my partner and I managed to win a Double Scull against the Thomians. It was a margin of victory amounting to a mere 23 milliseconds. I unfortunately lost another Scull due to a mistake which we refer to as ‘catching a crab’, when I was unable to remove my oar from the water on time. But that was a case of bad luck. The Double Scull victory lifted our spirits. My Scull defeat lifted mine even more.”

What supplemented this was the fact that much of the squad had aged over the years. The elders had left, while the younger rowers had encountered enough and more defeat on the Beira to push them. “The Royal-Thomian Regatta consists of eight point races and three exhibition races. In 2015, except for one B Pair Match which we lost, we emerged as the overall Champions with a score of 48-04. In 2016 we vowed not to concede even one inch to the Thomians. We realised how well the previous tournament made us strive for more when we clinched a much bigger score of 50-02, which was actually a record breaker. 2016 was special for another reason: we also clinched the highest number of trophies from a single Regatta.”

Presently the Captain of the Rowing Crew at Royal, he has discerned the point that victory isn’t bred overnight, and is the result of weeks, months, and years of training and practice. “We practise from 1.30 to 7.30 pm thrice a week, at the Beira or the Diyawanna. We are expected to give the best we’ve got. That’s what we deliver.”

Inasmuch as he is into rowing and devotes almost all his energy to it, Hashen leads other lives, within and outside school. He is a President’s Scout, is the Finance Director of the Interact Club, and is part of the Souvenir Committee (which collates the relevant material for the Souvenir of the annual Big Match between Royal and S. Thomas’). Despite a hectic rowing schedule that could overtax anyone, he is also sitting for his Advanced Level exams, not once but twice: he has offered Commerce for the Local A Levels (this month) and will be offering Maths for the London A Levels. His ambition, from what I’ve read elsewhere, is to be an engineer.

What of the “thereafter” that all these accomplishments, clinched within a few years, merit? Hashen has set his eyes on the Olympics, and as ambitious as it may seem, I believe he has what it takes to mould himself for that tournament.

That recent spate of setbacks which some of our national squads have faced and endured has made me realise that there’s enough form in our youngsters to keep us hoping for more. And for better. We seem to lack consistency because we are so full of complacency. Given Hashen’s past record, I’d say that he hasn’t been complacent. The Roy-Tho, those stints in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Thailand, as well as that time long, long ago when he tried to make it to the rugby field and instead fractured his ankle, have taught him well. We can only hope. We should then hope.

Photos courtesy of and The Review

Written for: The Island YOUth, August 20 2017