How Yupun met a man who turned him down but became his coach | Sunday Observer

How Yupun met a man who turned him down but became his coach

18 September, 2022
Yupun Abeykoon
Yupun Abeykoon

Right from his childhood, Yupun Abeykoon wanted to be an athlete. His parents questioned the future potential of this field but he refused to budge.

He said he could work till 70 and make money, but would not be able to sprint at the world level after he turned 30.

Yupun tried high jumping, long jumping and triple jumping (which he loved), before South Asia’s fastest man put Sri Lanka on the athletics map turning to sprinting.

He realised how good he was at 100m when the results started flowing in. He did 10.78 at the School Games and 10.58 at the Army Championships (good for bronze) in 2015.

That year, aged 20, he took a massive punt - flying to Italy. It helped that his father worked in Naples, but Yupun didn’t know the language, where and how to find a coach and did not have any means of making money. Then, he met the man who would guide him to success, coach Mauricio.

“I saw an elderly gentleman training a few children in a stadium in Rome- and I asked if he could help me,” Yupun told ESPN.

He said no initially, but changed his mind and he has been training with him ever since.

“He’s like a father to me. I can never leave him.”

Yupun now trains with Mauricio and former Olympian Claudio Licciardello at the GS Fiamme Gialle Sports Center -- the sporting division of the Italian police force that has produced 42 Olympic medallists.

Three of the four members of the Italian 4x100m relay team that won gold at the Tokyo Olympics train alongside Yupun. He was roommates with the shock men’s 100m Olympic champion Lamont Jacobs.

The Olympic year had started well for him too, the first South Asian to qualify for the men’s 100m at the Games in 32 years.

He set a new South Asian record of 10.09 seconds months before but he admitted pressure got to him. He lost in the heats with a time of 10.32s, slower than that only once over the last two years.

Yupun’s career, though, has been on an upswing since then.

He began this season with a 10.04s, a 10.06s and then a 10.08s in May. In June, Yupun ran 9.96s - fastest time ever recorded by a South Asian, the fourth-fastest by an Asian.

“Only 32 countries in the world have produced athletes who can run sub10.

“There are only 170 athletes all-time in history and I’m the 167th to get there,” he says.

People found it incredible that I am from South Asia because they think only Africans, Americans and Europeans can do it but I have proved that we are also strong.” Yupun now sees it as his duty to give Sri Lankans some cheer amid the crisis of government collapse and a spiraling economy.

He had gone home last year to celebrate his birthday (31 December) – his first with family since he moved to Italy. However, he’s not sure if he can go back this year.

“As an athlete, it is very important for us to control our emotions and feelings. Especially because one incident can ruin a race and all the hard work you’ve put in over the years.”

But he continues to run for Sri Lanka. “They need hope and I aim to provide that. I felt great that when I did well, the credit not only came to me but it also went to my country.”