Meet former Sri Lankan swimmer Dr. Ghefari Dulapandan | Sunday Observer
Braving deep waters and making history

Meet former Sri Lankan swimmer Dr. Ghefari Dulapandan

28 March, 2021

Achieving greatness is not only about winning competitions and gold medals. It is about the way you treat the other people you meet and deal with, says Dr. Ghefari Dulapandan speaking about his inspiring journey to becoming a record setting, World Championship swimmer. In an interview with Youth Observer, Dr. Dulapandan relates his experiences, struggles and the lessons he learnt as he tirelessly worked his way to reaching the top and going down in Sri Lankan history as one of its greatest swimmers.

Q: You are a former World Championship swimmer and won many accolades in competitions such as the South Asian Federation Games now known as the South Asian Games and other major tournaments. However, your success within the field is not limited to this. Can you tell me more about your other achievements as a swimmer?

A: My success as a swimmer began when I was a school boy. I first represented Sri Lanka at the age of 13. I was the captain of the swimming team at my school S. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia and became the first Thomian to captain the national swimming team while I was still a student at the age of 16. I also had the great pleasure of being the captain of Sri Lanka’s national swimming team for eight consecutive years from 1992 to 2000. I was also an undefeated national champion for eight consecutive years. I was also the only Thomian to have the opportunity to captain my team at S. Thomas’ College and the Royal College Union Aquatic Club.

I then went on to participate in international tournaments. One such tournament was the South Asia Federation Games held in Colombo in 1991, at which I was the youngest participant to win a medal. In 1996, I created history by being the first swimmer to complete the 100m butterfly event under one minute, clocking 58 seconds. In 1998 I had the honour of becoming the first Sri Lankan to qualify for and swim at the World Championship tournament in 1998, reaching the Ssemifinals.

Apart from participating at these events, I was the first swimmer to set up 14 national records in one swimming meet and also the first swimmer to win 13 gold medals at a single national swimming championship.

Q: What was your experience when competing in major international tournaments?

A: When you take part in competitions, especially international competitions, it gives you a flavour of all the different types of people around the world and it moulds you into being better at what you do and teaches you to be a leader. In life, there are pitfalls and ups and downs and these competitions where you meet so many people from different cultures and backgrounds, really teaches you to not let those things drag you down. Competing internationally automatically trains you to prepare yourself for anything that comes your way and it also trains you to dust yourself off and keep going when you face setbacks.

Q: How old were you when you got into swimming and what sparked your interest in the sport?

A: I started swimming when I was about eight or nine. My journey to become a swimmer unfortunately began with the tragic demise of my cousin who drowned in a river while trying to save a young child who was being washed away by the strong current of the water.

When my cousin passed away, what prompted me to start learning to swim was the thought that occurred to me that if my cousin had been a strong swimmer, he may have been able to survive the unfortunate incident. Initially when I had to get into water to learn to swim, my mother had to get in with me and start swimming as well because I was scared and would start crying. My very first coach was Asela Jayampath who noticed that I possessed a talent for the sport. One year later, he enrolled me to compete in the novice’s championship and I won the championship. He then referred me to Zain and that is how my journey began. This was a perfect example that in life, even the smallest decisions we make, add to our destiny and therefore, we must always try our very best to not take the easy way or take shortcuts and instead should to make the right decision and choice no matter how difficult it may be to do so.

Q: Could you tell me about your journey to becoming a great athlete, your training and dedication to the sport?

A: A key fact that we should all remember is that our youth is our future. This does not only apply to the field of swimming or sports. Therefore, we need to have a rounded education. It is not all about going to school and getting university degrees. We need to learn about life and people and this is where sports moulds you into becoming a gentleman or a lady and helps you progress. When I participated in the SAF Games in 1991, I was sitting for my GCE Ordinary Level examination. I worked hard and dedicated myself to the sport and my studies and was able to win a Silver medal in the tournament and pass the examination with flying colours. So, I will say that it is about dedication, perseverance and having the right mindset.

One of the most important things is to have discipline. These are things that sports teaches us, not just to win competitions but to live life well. While everyone says “Practice makes perfect”, I always say “Perfect practice makes perfect”. Everything that one does, one must do to the best of one’s ability and as perfectly as possible.

Q: Representing a small country such as Sri Lanka, in international tournaments undoubtedly places an immense amount of responsibility and pressure on your shoulders. How was your support system when competing in these tournaments and how did you handle this responsibility?

A: I had a very good support system at home. My parents gave me a very good moulding and supported me immensely. My coach Rizvi Zaine was always there right next to me and supported me throughout my career. The saddest moment I experienced in my career as a swimmer was after the 1990 Asian Games in Bangkok, when my dear coach Zaine experienced a heart attack and passed away.

Q: What do you think we as a country should do to help youth who have the skills, talent and potential reach great heights?

A: I think a key aspect of achieving great heights is having a great support system, not only at home but also a support network with coaches, medical and a supportive governing body. Sri Lanka is now much better off than it was when we were competing as young athletes. When we participated in tournaments, especially international ones, the athletes and their families had to bear the costs and burdens on their own. I believe that backing and support of the country or the governing body has improved in Sri Lanka. However, I do believe that Sri Lanka should focus on and work towards improving our scientific and technological background that will help the athletes and their training. We definitely have a lot of potential. Today’s swimmers and athletes have grown into better and more professional athletes. I can see that because some of my records have been broken after about 30 years, so we are definitely getting there and it isn’tonly one or two swimmers it is a lot of them with great potential. Hopefully, we will continue to become stronger as the years go by.

Moving forward in the interview, Dr. Dulapandan answered a few questions regarding his personal experience in the field of swimming, for our young readers who aspire to pursue their passion for swimming or other sports and who consider the inspiring interviewee as a role model.

Q: As a young swimmer making his way to the top, did you have any role models within or outside of the field that you aspired to be like? Who would you say inspired you as a swimmer?

A: My main role models in the field of swimming were my two coaches Asela Jayampath and Rizvi Zain. They shaped me into who I am today. I believe that every human being is different and very unique. So, the person you need to develop is yourself and everything you do in life should be aimed at that self-development. Sometimes when you keep someone else on a pedestal and aspire to be exactly like that person without realizing your own unique skills, talent and potential, you may fall short of the image you created in your mind, that you copied off of that person and that may cause you to be discouraged, disappointed and may even cause you to give up. Everyone is running their own race and living their own life. In life, you always need to work towards improving yourself while doing your best to help other human beings without any expectation in return. It is very important that the youth of today recognise and understand the purpose of their lives and what they are truly meant for because the world needs their talent and their potential.

Q: What do you most enjoy about this sport?

A: The comradery and the friendships that we have created because of this sport, is my favourite part. It was about helping each other develop and not leaving anyone behind despite any differences we may have had between us. That support network that was created and has lasted to this day has been very important to me.

Q: How do you cope with stress before a competition?

A: I actually meditated a lot before competitions to calm myself and keep myself centered and focused. I would also go into my own little world in my mind before a competition and kept swimming each event or race in my mind, thinking and focusing on each and every stroke I would make and breath I would take when I was actually competing.

Q: How important was goal setting to your training?

A: We always set goals. I think it is very important that you write your goals down. You should write down your short-term goals, your medium-term goals and your long-term goals. Then you put your long-term goals in an envelope and you put it away, you do the same with your medium-term goals and then you start working on your short-term goals. After a certain amount of time, you open up and go through your medium-term goals and see whether you have been able to achieve any of them and if not, begin trying to do so and if your goals have changed then you make those changes. You have to keep writing down, working on and understanding your goals and the way in which they change with time. The small things in life matter and even the smallest goal, when achieved through hard work, could make a difference in your life. If you don’t do the small things well, you can never do the big things well.

Q: What is the greatest challenge most athletes face today?

A: The immense and unnecessary pressure on the shoulders of athletes to achieve this incorrect and preconceived idea of “greatness”. The increased amount of competition is also an issue for athletes today. I believe that competition makes you stronger and that it is a necessary element for the growth of any athlete. However, what has happened today is that other people push athletes to achieve what they expect of them. I always say, “Don’t ever let anyone else push you to achieve things that they expect you to achieve.” This is applicable to today’s youth as a whole. Unfortunately, youth have an immense amount of pressure to achieve what society deems them worthy of and these societal pressures and norms are only ruining the lives of the youth and crushing their potential and passion. Whatever one does, one must always do with a great amount of passion and perseverance.

Q: What are the main traits a sportsman or sportswoman should possess to achieve great heights?

A: I think the most important thing is perseverance and to understand that nothing in life comes easy. Something I always say to young people and athletes that I talk to is, “The dictionary is the one and only place in which success comes before work.” So, you have to work hard to be successful in life. You also need to have the right mindset and a “can do” attitude so that no matter what is thrown your way, you are able to overcome it gracefully and achieve the heights you wish to achieve.

Q: The experiences you have had, the connections you have made and the lessons you have learnt along the way are immense. How do you use this to help other athletes or people in general, or to make a difference through your current work and life?

A: I don’t believe in handouts but I believe in empowering people. Especially young people. I conduct and volunteer in a lot of charity work and I believe that if I can help at least even one person realise and achieve his dreams and goals in any way I can, then that is a great thing. That is how I continue to live my life.

Q: Finally, as an experienced sportsman and an inspiring public figure, is there any specific advice you could give to the younger generation of sportsmen and sportswomen and the rest of society?

A: Something that I consider is very important for people to truly understand and absorb into their lives, is that no matter what we do or who we are, it is extremely important that we act as human beings. The world has lost the human touch. I urge all athletes and the rest of society to go ahead and achieve greatness but make sure to stay humble throughout the journey and help as many people as possible in any way you can, no matter who they are. Always be kind and give love to anyone and everyone irrespective of who they are, their race, religion, background or any other defining aspect because no matter what, we are all human beings.

Concluding the interesting and inspiring interview, Dr. Dulapandan expressed his gratitude to the important people in his life saying, “I thank my amazing support system, my mother, father, sister, my aunties who used to take me for swimming practices and of course my coaches who have been the key aspects of my career and the reasons behind all my achievements.”

Images: Thilak Perera