Devils on the wheels | Sunday Observer

Devils on the wheels

Since the beginning of the automobile age motorsports were a man’s domain. However, despite men dominating racing, there have always been a number of female racers who have proved that they could drive just as fast, and sometimes, even faster than the men. Men are enthusiastic on wheels, and then there are the women who have got racing in their blood.

Challenging the stereotypes, Ashvitha Wickrama and Maryse Navaratne chose extreme sports which free their spirits with speedy expressions. Their bold step in choosing off-road 4x4 challenges has changed the history for women on road racing in Sri Lanka. Ashvitha and Maryse are now a multi threat to other female off-road drivers in the world, after their victories at SHEMUD (she+mud) International while showing off their skills in extreme sport.

SHEMUD International is the world’s first all-women extreme 4X4 challenge. It is held annually in the rain forests of Malaysia and features female competitors from all around the world. SHEMUD off road challenge tests speed, endurance and skill of teams throughout the race through muddy terrains and dense forests. While being the youngest team and facing the toughest of challenges, Ashvitha and Maryse won the 2nd runners up trophies at SHEMUD 2016 and 2018.

Youth Observer went on the high speed lane to check out these amazing young women behind the wheel. “We both were into karting first. Actually shifting to off-road racing was a dramatic merge for us. But now, after a lot of practice we are on the right track. We are extremely happy for what we have achieved in such a short period of time,” said Ashvitha.

An undergraduate specialising in Automotive Engineering, aged 22, Ashvitha has won numerous awards in national level karting competitions. Maryse who started road racing with karting has won national level awards in the women’s category. Keeping education at first place, Maryse aged 29, is following her Masters in Human Resource Management and holds double degrees in International Business and Management.

According to Ashvitha, off-road-racing is not for the fainthearted, who are not ready to face extreme situations and adventures. “There may be young people who are very talented in driving and racing, if they want to race off-road, they must have endurance, patience, team coordination and skill. In a sport like this team work makes the dream work,” said Maryse.

The SHEMUD competition which happens at a Malaysian rainforest provides a different kind of terrain and climate for competitors and creates unexpected challenges for the girls. Camping in the middle of the jungle and racing in the day time in untrodden paths full of obstacles gives excitement to the level racers want. “Maryse is the one who did the hard work such as pulling and dragging the vehicle from mud pits while I drove. We successfully completed challenges such as crossing the rivers, climbing hills that are 90 degrees angled and crossing the wood bridges. Those were not easy, because no one clears the uneven path, or gets you out from a stuck situation to move forward. Here team coordination is very important,” said Ashvitha.

Physical strength and fitness plays a major role in off-road racing. Victory is just a word if one isn’t ready to sacrifice. Stamina and energy are very essential at every stage of the competition. As Maryse said, “SHEMUD is a whole day competition that lasts five days, therefore competitors must be physically sound to get through each stage.”

While revealing the unforgettable moments of the last SHEMUD, they came out with one incident where they got stuck in the middle of a mud pit up to hip level, infested with leeches and bugs. Team spirit took them out of that situation. “One day it was pitch dark when we returned to our camp. We were wet and dirty and couldn’t find the river in order to take a bath. So we had to sleep in our wet clothes and get ready for the next day. Some days we had to start our rounds in the middle of the night according to the given schedule. This is the nature of SHEMUD. We couldn’t complain that other competitors got their rounds in the day time. We took up the challenge,” said Maryse.

Among the ones who inspired them in chasing their dreams were Ashvitha's father and Maryse's husband. Constant support and guidance has created two strong sports personalities that changed the history of a male dominated sport. “We would like to see more girls taking up this sport. We will gladly train anyone who wants to learn to off-road race,” they said.

Sri Lanka needs more brave young girls to create a future for women. Ashvitha and Maryse have made a turning point for 'Women in Sports'. If they could do it, anyone can. Boundaries only exist in our minds. Break the prison where your mind dwells and let it see the colorful world that you dream of. So girls, what are you waiting for? The world is waiting for you to express yourself.