Monday, September 18, 2017

Visulmina Subasinghe reflects on kayaking

There are two broad routes through which a player, any player, can achieve at anything: by besting another contender, and by creating the standard through which every contender can achieve and win. Every athlete, cricketer, tennis, table-tennis, rugby, and diver I’ve interviewed for this column falls into the former category. They’ve taken in what others have bequeathed to them and, in turn, have given back the way they can. This week’s player is different. He’s given back, yes, but in a way that makes him less an ordinary competitor than a veritable benchmark-builder.

Like rowing, kayaking was born out of a need to survive and conquer the water. It morphed into a sport in the 19th century and became a competitive activity (with Federations spanning the entire world) by the end of the 20th. Sri Lanka, of course, is no stranger to aquatic sports: the long list of rowing, diving, and water polo championships here will convince anyone of that. But for some strange reason, kayaking has never really gone beyond the hobby-sport it remains for those in Sri Lanka who like to “conquer” the Mahaweli and the Kalu Ganga as an annual rite.

Visulmina Samanga Subasinghe wants to make a difference there. Visulmina, as I wade through his story, has conquered age category and open championships, and has gone as far as to reach the finals at a regional tournament. Speaking with him several weeks ago, I was struck (as I still am) by how he’s not made up his mind to not just nurture and develop the game in Sri Lanka, but also to create the standards that we will need to uplift it beyond what it is to most of our countrymen today.

Visulmina’s first foray into a water sport was through swimming in Grade Two. Until 2015, he would clinch College, Zonal, and Provincial Colours. Swimming had in fact been the first real activity he found to his liking: at his school, St Sebastian’s College, Moratuwa, he had tried, but failed, to take to basketball, karate, and other ball-and-racquet sports. “I couldn’t picture myself playing them, to be honest. So you can imagine how relieved I was when swimming salvaged me, and gave me some sense of meaning, of order.” It would, of course, be a precursor to bigger victories.

He would eventually shift to his current activity. How that came about was rather coincidental. “Years ago I went to the Ambalangoda Meets, getting to the finals. I would have been in Grade Seven or Eight then, when I began indulging in kayaking as a hobby of sorts. Mind you, this was just after the National Association of Canoeing and Kayaking had been set up, so the game was still in a primitive state. Then, while I was in Grade 10, I emerged third in the National Finals in the Freestyle 100m category. That got me my College Colours. I was taken to Bolgoda, for another meet. While I was practicing and just walking around, I happened to chance across a set kayakers. One thing led to another, I got entranced by what they were doing, and eventually was invited to do some serious kayaking myself. This was in 2015.”

The sport had been new to him, even then, so after his initial encounter Visulmina had still taken to it as a hobby. “I went to a tournament called the Diyawanna Sprints, held at the Diyawanna Lake. I obviously wasn’t aware of the subtle and not-so-subtle nuances of the game, so for the first few weeks I was clumsily trying to conquer my canoe. Eventually, after much trial and error, I ended up as the third in the Open 500m relay, one where not just schoolboys and schoolgirls but also Navy and Air Force personnel competed. I was quite exhilarated, needless to say. I followed it up that same year at an endurance championship in Bolgoda, where, to my astonishment, I became the Number One national player in the 100m Under 18 category.”

That latter victory would prove to be pivotal to his subsequent career, when after perusing his performance, no less a person than Mihin Amarasinghe, the national kayaking coach, asked him to consider taking off as a serious kayaker. Amarasinghe and Preethi Perera, the President of the Federation, jointly asked him to practice harder, and so soon enough he was practicing, by now having all but completely given up swimming. Not surprisingly, this would be an augur, a prelude, a foreword.

Here’s an attempt at a list of all his achievements thereafter, then. In 2016 he became the Number One Under 18 200m player in the K1 category (the equivalent of a single scull in rowing), clocking in at 49 seconds. In September that year, he was invited or rather selected for the Asia Kayaking Cup held at Tashkent, Uzbekistan, which (in his own words) he went to less for reasons of winning than for reasons of garnering some experience as to how the sport was being played, and promoted, elsewhere.

Needless to say, he won discernibly at the category he had built himself up for before, getting into the finals at the 200m K1 category and becoming the seventh among a contingent of players from other Asian countries. He had not, however, performed as well in the two other categories, 500m and 1000m, since he hadn’t prepared himself for them. The following year, at a demonstration race overseen by the President of the Asian Canoe Federation, Shoken Narita, he clinched first place at the Under 18 event and fourth place at the Open event.

The list doesn’t end there, of course. Earlier this year he participated at the Kayaking Nationals, kayaking at the Under 23 event and, naturally enough, clinching the first place in the 200m category (46 seconds) and getting crowned as the Best Paddler therein. That victory and every other victory before it had convinced him to give back to his school, and so in February he started a College team with 12 paddlers. “Of those 12, seven participated at the National Meets. We won the Under 14, Under 16, and Under 18 championships, along the way winning eight gold medals in total.”

Glancing through these victories, I can’t help but wonder as to what Visulmina learnt from them. They’ve certainly spurred him to invigorate the state of the sport in the country, which is why I ask him as to his attitude to the game. He replies by saying that unlike the more popular rowing, which has more or less crept to every school (in Colombo), the kayaker’s boat (that is, the canoe) is more unstable and less dependent on the player’s legs. “In rowing, as long as you hold your paddle correctly, you won’t fall off, and even if you do, the boat will keep you steady on the water. The canoe, on the other hand, is tougher to handle and is based primarily on how well you manoeuvre it with your hands, which is why it’s not determined by your leg power. In fact the entire concept of kayaking is different to rowing, not least because the props, the equipment, the facilities are completely different.”

According to Visulmina, those facilities haven’t been properly upgraded or even established in Sri Lanka, something he learnt on his own all too well in Uzbekistan. “Earlier we competed at the Bolgoda. Now we compete at the much more developed Diyawanna Lake. However, the reason why the Lake better is simply that the Diyawanna consists of a two-kilometre landing stretch for the Air Force. In other countries there are specialised two-lane canoeing pools, replete with electronic timing. Perhaps it’s because it took a long time for a Federation to be established in Sri Lanka, but we are still very much behind considering the state of the game elsewhere.”

What of his “thereafter”, given all these reflections and accolades? There is a very high probability that Visulmina will compete at the next Asian Championship, with other paddlers from the Navy and the Army. His hope, however, is to go beyond the national and regional level and compete at the 2020 Olympics. The future of the game in the country promises much in that respect, with an interschool kayaking competition to be (hopefully) held this December. How that will end, whether it will be enough to move our schools from a historically more reckonable rowing culture to a more rapid, spontaneous, and unstable paddle sport, is something we can’t predict, much less determine. Perhaps Visulmina’s past is a good indicator that, given the woeful state of those sports and activities considered “popular” today, we can still, as a country, clinch something of value along the water, as opposed to on the field.

Photos courtesy of ThePapare.com and SEBS MEDIA

Written for: The Island YOUth, September 17 2017