Wheelchair tennis pioneer makes an impassioned plea | Sunday Observer

Wheelchair tennis pioneer makes an impassioned plea

9 December, 2018
Wheelchair tennis bronze medal winners Lasantha Ranaweera (left) and Suresh Dharmasena and with coach Jagath Welikala (centre)
Wheelchair tennis bronze medal winners Lasantha Ranaweera (left) and Suresh Dharmasena and with coach Jagath Welikala (centre)

We don’t need anyone’s sympathies, just give us the facilities says Jagath Welikala:

Sri Lanka wheelchair tennis is set to move to the next level according to Jagath Welikala, a veteran coach who made a fervent plea that what his players need is not to be despised by Society but recognition that they could attain Olympic fame like the rest of the able bodied sportsmen and women.

For the first time Sri Lanka won a medal which came at the Para Asian Games by way of a bronze in the doubles event this year and Welikala who has been involved in coaching for the past three decades can be a very satisfied man as it was he who initiated wheelchair tennis in Sri Lanka in 2003 to reach a new era.

“It was the first time that Sri Lanka wheelchair tennis players won a bronze medal at the Asian Para Games where the world number one player from Japan took part and it was a great opportunity for us,” said Welikala.

Being a member of the International Wheelchair Federation Coaches Commission and working for Sri Lanka tennis since 1989, Welikala said it was some experience for him and the turning point of his sports career when the team was disqualified at the 2004 Para Olympics in Athens, Greece.

It was there that Welikala decided to witness a match and while waiting for a shuttle bus to take him to the venue he had the opportunity to meet and practice-play opposite a Thai women’s player Ratana Techamaneew who eventually won the silver medal at the Games in Athens in 2004. But great fortune was to come his way when the world champion Esther Vergheer presented her wheelchair to the Sri Lanka team after she won the gold medal and Welikala bagged a three-month scholarship in the Netherlands from where Vergheer hailed.

Subsequently when he returned to Sri Lanka from the Netherlands he guided wheelchair players to another level while wins were recorded against players from the USA, Spain, Italy, Argentina, Canada, Morocco, Switzerland, Russia, Malaysia, Israel, Germany, Slovakia, Croatia, Hungary and Japan.

“Since 2003 our players have won more than 60 trophies around the world,” said Welikala. “At the moment we have 16 players in the country and all of them have world rankings. The sport has given them a purpose in life, and they in turn have taken it to greater heights.”

Most of the Sri Lanka wheelchair tennis players are from the army and Welikala hopes that differently-able players from other sectors too will take to the sport.

He rued the fact that some people look at wheelchair tennis as a stigma in society which should not be the case as it is a sport recognised by the world Olympic fraternity.

In contrast Welikala says that several who took to wheelchair tennis had experienced a change in their life and the way society looks at them.

“My ultimate target is to make Sri Lanka win an Olympic medal and for this our players need the respect and facilities, not sympathies,” declared Welikala.

“I am confident that at the next Paralympics we will make a bigger impact and we are drawing up a strategy to beat Japan.”