Misunderstood Sri Lankan gymnast beauty cold-shouldered at Commonwealth Games | Page 2 | Sunday Observer

Misunderstood Sri Lankan gymnast beauty cold-shouldered at Commonwealth Games

14 August, 2022
Anna-Marie Ondaatje disappointed after her mistake at the end of the hoop routine
Anna-Marie Ondaatje disappointed after her mistake at the end of the hoop routine

Why should Anna-Marie Ondaatje be treated like a voice in the wilderness when her credentials have been proven beyond doubt and her honesty a cut above the rest:

Sri Lanka’s star sprinter Yupun Abeykoon always attributes his success to his team, particularly his Italian coach Claudio Licciardello who accompanied him to the XXII Commonwealth Games along with physiotherapist Matteo Galderisi. Abeykoon is fortunate to have the expertise of the Olympian to go places in Europe in preparation for major international events.

The advice he gave to South Asia’s fastest man before the men’s 100m final at the Alexander Stadium in Birmingham was to relax. “My coach told me I have already won by qualifying for the finals. You are free and not under any sort of pressure,” said Abeykoon after his epoch-making bronze medal feat at the Games.

Abeykoon ran a perfect race without straining himself, finishing third almost in a canter from lane two. Even he could not believe his eyes at the result, taking some time to soak in his monumental feat.

However, just imagine if his coach was not there to motivate him before the final. Would he have achieved a podium finish? It is a hypothetical question but relevant in the context of one athlete representing Sri Lanka at the Games rhythmic gymnast Anna-Marie Suzanne Quint Ondaatje being denied the right to have her life-long coach beside her on the biggest stage of all because of bureaucratic red tape. It smacks of a conspiracy by envious officials who have been littering obstacles in her path ever since she created history for Sri Lanka at the 2017 World Rythmic Gymnastic Championships and qualified to represent the country at the 2018 Gold Coast and Asian Games.

Sri Lanka should be grateful that an athlete who represented Canada’s junior national team in 2014 decided to switch nationality because of her parents Alistair and Suzanne Ondaatje. Alas, a teenager who put Sri Lanka on the world stage in rhythmic gymnastics and qualified for the finals in Gold Coast and Jakarta in the All-Around finals had to thread a minefield outside the carpet where she moved gracefully like a ballerina.

After her dreams of representing the country at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics was shattered, she almost went into oblivion with no other international competitions taking place because of the pandemic. When she wanted to reignite her career ahead of the Commonwealth Games, it was nearly scuppered by the national federation for the sport who waited until the eleventh hour to renew her FIG (International Gymnastics Federation) license in May.

“There was a little bit of delay but when I needed it, I was able to get it for which I am grateful. There was a little bit of stress before I got it,” she said modestly. However, with her coach Svetlana Joukova being invited as a judge for the Games, efforts to get accreditation for her assistant coach Anastasiia Shaykharieva failed. “Usually I have either my head coach Svetlana or my assistant Anastasiia as coach. It was the first time probably for the second biggest competition of my life,” said Anna-Marie who cut a forlorn figure without her coach at the Games.

It was like going for a boxing contest without a cornerman. How it impacted her performance is a matter of conjecture but just imagine the trauma an athlete would be going through without a manager or coach to talk to.

Nonetheless she put her best foot forward and gave an almost flawless performance in her pet event the hoop before a mistake at the end. “I got my best score (23.600) even with this big mistake at the end. I was a bit surprised because it just goes to show how high value my hoop routine was. Even with this mistake, it still was a really high score. So had I not made this error at the end, I would have been easily top eight with a super good score but unfortunately that mistake had happened and it cost me a lot of points. But I still managed to get my highest score there because the routine was so difficult and the difficulty and execution was so higher than for the rest of the routines,” she said.

Asked whether it affected her performance in the remainder of the competition, she said: “It definitely made me a little bit nervous because I realized now that I made this mistake, the other routines should be without any errors. So it made me a little bit nervous to make sure that everything is perfect but at the same time I had to work on my routines very well and make sure I performed them confidently. I don’t think I was easily able to separate the hoop routine from the rest of my routines because my coach always told me that when a routine is done it is done. You have to move on and you have work to go. You have a lot of competitions. One routine doesn’t mean nothing. You don’t know what somebody else dropped, you don’t know what mistake somebody else made, you don’t even know what your place is when we are at the back there,” she said.

Yet if she had her coach beside her things may have panned out differently. “Yeah definitely all those things can come into play. All that stress like before the competition knowing your coach is not going to be there, knowing that somebody from the federation is coming with you. Those things may play a role subconsciously,” she added.

Even when she arrived in the Games Village being the last foreign athlete to arrive since her event was on August 4, Anna-Marie was given the cold shoulder by team officials. “I came later like other rhythmic gymnasts from other countries as well because my event was also later in the Games. When I arrived at 8pm, they gave me a room there but it wasn’t clean. There was a problem with the room because artistic gymnasts were staying there before. I didn’t receive my uniform (track suit) till later but anyways I got it. But I felt good, overall it was okay,” she said.

She produced some strong routines in the other apparatus such ball (21.850), clubs (23.200) and ribbon (21.900) but it was riddled with minor errors but she managed to finish eighth (90.550) out of 13 competitors in sub-division one but had to wait until the sub-division two was completed in the evening to find out whether she had qualified for the All-Around finals.

“I was just waiting to find out the next day what would be the result. I ended up becoming first reserve for the finals. When I found out, it was pretty sad and disappointing but it’s okay, that’s sport right. I know that it has nothing to do with each other’s capabilities. I am fully capable of being in the top five there. It’s just that error brought me down a lot with hoop routine. I was pretty sad that whole day and the next day but you just put yourself together and we have more competitions right. This is not the last competition of my career. We have a lot to learn from this one for the Olympic Games for example,” said Anna-Marie reviewing her performance at the Games.

She expressed surprise at the podium result observing as a spectator the entire finals. “All the scores are very close even in the final. You never know who is going to be on the podium. It is really difficult to know. It all comes down to whose endurance is stronger by the third day, who is going to be more consistent but in capabilities, all of the athletes can do similar things. I was a little bit surprised with (Anna Sokolova) Cyprus winning second place,” she said. England’s Marfa Ekimova and Australia’s Alexandra Kiroi-Bogatyreva won gold and bronze medal respectively in the All-Around finals.

Asked what she had learnt from her experience at the Games, she said: “I wrote down in my journal what I have learnt. To make sure as long as whatever the experience is, even if it is a good one or it’s a bad one to take something from it. To learn something about it, talk about it and apply it later.”

Canada won the rhythmic gymnastics team title after a narrow 4.3-point team victory over nearest rivals Australia. “As a team they were collectively strong together. I have known them since being provincial and national level gymnast. I was happy for them, I didn’t feel any envy and felt proud for them,” said Anna-Marie who also enjoys the advantage of training in Canada.

Asked how rhythmic gymnastics could become popular in Sri Lanka, she said: “Rhythmic gymnastics was introduced to Sri Lanka in 2017. It takes more than for example, one athlete to make something. I think it’s going to take a lot of time but with persistence, consistency, support, understanding from everybody and sports media people to share the experience, that’s what will get everything going. For example, a school of rhythmic gymnastics in Sri Lanka doesn’t need to be opened next year but at least if it is a topic of conversation, somebody is talking about it, there is something there.”

Anna-Marie acknowledges that rhythmic gymnastics is still a European-dominated event. “You need to have more South Asian representation. It is also important for example if you are watching on TV, you need to see people of your colour, nationality there. For you to feel connected with the show. Even for me, there are not a lot of people of colour in rhythmic gymnastics. Definitely it’s a barrier you need to break,” she said.

Anna-Marie also has the difficult task of proving detractors in Sri Lanka that she is not just a showbiz artiste and is serious about her sporting career. “I don’t know where they are picking on this idea. Maybe it’s from social media or maybe from what I am doing. In my opinion, I know my priorities and like what I would like to do in my life. I don’t know who would have practiced since nine years old and following this like a passion. It’s not like just three years ago, I decided to do diving and represent Sri Lanka the next year. I have been doing this (gymnastics) since I was nine years old. I have a lot of dreams to represent Sri Lanka in the Paris Olympics,” she said.

“This is like in my opinion, doesn’t make any sense. Of course we need to follow other goals. Think about our future. We have things we need to think about. In sport, our bodies are physically able to run for so long. We need to sort out other things. It doesn’t mean your priorities are different. I feel my priority is gymnastics. I am still in love with gymnastics and in love with representing Sri Lanka in this sport,” she reiterated.

“Right now the goal is Asian Games in China and also Paris 2024,” said Anna-Marie, who is on reserve to participate in the World Rythmic Gymnastic Championship next month. “If that doesn’t fall through, we have next season starting in January with a small world challenge event. The World Cup cycle will start in April.”

The 21-year-old may be considered a prima donna because of her beautiful ancestry tracing back to Maureen Hingert, the first Sri Lankan to win an award at an international beauty pageant, being second runner-up at the Miss Universe in 1955. Anna-Marie is immensely proud of her origin but is more down to earth and Sri Lankan than natives born in the country. Her prime objective is to bring glory to Sri Lanka by using her talents in rhythmic gymnastics which has been her passion since the age of nine.

On a brighter note, she was amazed by the experience at the closing ceremony of the Games. “It was nice with a lot of music,