A father’s love in a boxing glove | Sunday Observer

A father’s love in a boxing glove

20 June, 2021
Boxing gloves placed on Sampath’s casket on his final journey
Boxing gloves placed on Sampath’s casket on his final journey

Sampath’s death wish was to see his daughter Nelka attain Olympian heights as a boxing referee:

A daughter more often than not hero worships her father who dreams of his offspring achieving greatness in life. There are many instances of girls following their father in sports though it is a rarity in boxing. Laila Ali, widely regarded as one of the greatest female boxers of all time, winning multiple titles before retiring as an undefeated champion was one of them.

However, boxing legend Muhammad Ali was unhappy when his daughter Laila followed in his footsteps to become a professional boxer because of the dangers associated with the sport. Laila would no doubt have been inspired by the heroics of Ali in the ring and eager to emulate her real life hero.

When women’s boxing was first introduced to Sri Lanka in 2001, Navy’s boxing coach at the time T. Sampath had no qualms about throwing his eldest daughter Nelka Shiromala into the ring. A Sub Inspector of Police at the time, Nelka relished the challenge of emulating her father, a Navy boxing champion who had represented Sri Lanka. In fact, Sampath, a father of four girls, wished to see Nelka achieving what he could not – become an Olympian. One of the pioneer women boxers in Sri Lanka, Nelka did not scale great heights as a pugilist but stamped her class as a referee in the international arena and is on the verge of fulfilling her father’s dream.

In a tragic irony, Sampath passed away before he could see his daughter reach the final destination in a journey he began by teaching her boxing. He died after suffering a heart attack while Nelka was away in Paris officiating in the European Olympic Boxing qualifying tournament. He was 71 at the time of death.

“I do not know how to tell you that I lost my father. On the final day of the European Olympic qualifying competition in Paris, my husband called me and told me my father had suddenly passed away. I could not think of anything. I went into the room and cried loudly until the grief subsided,” Nelka posted in an emotional tribute to her loving father on her unbearable loss.

“I did not let you feel the loss of not having a son. Following in your footsteps, I became a boxer. Dear Dad, I did it. I have made all your dreams come true,” she added.

“Dad was my first boxing teacher. Following in my father’s footsteps, I became the first female boxer to represent the Sri Lanka Police. I was the first female international boxing judge from Sri Lanka. All these honours belong to you,” stated Nelka who was named Asia’s Best Boxing Referee of 2017 and the first woman to officiate in any sport from Sri Lanka at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia.

“My father wanted me to become like Laila Ali when he put gloves on me. I also wanted to become like Laila. He said you must aim to go to the Olympics though I did not achieve that,” she recalled in an interview with the Sunday Observer.

Nelka won the first ever women’s Novices boxing meet in Sri Lanka but could not win the national title being runner-up on five occasions to tough opponent and Army fighter Chandrika Guruge being consoled with the Best Loser’s award all the time. After returning from UN Peacekeeping duty and realising she could not go far in the sport, she hung up her gloves but grabbed the opportunity to become an official.

“I could never be national champion because age was catching up. I decided, if I can’t be in the Olympics as a boxer, I would go to the Olympics as a referee,” she said. It turned out to be her father’s death wish too.

“People think I don’t have a relationship with my father because I didn’t hold his hand and bring him to a meet. I wanted to maintain my independence and develop my own identity instead of climbing on his shoulders and getting promoted. He used to come and watch me refereeing secretly during boxing meets. He used to be always proud of me telling his friends that Nelka is officiating this or that tournament,” she said.

Nelka always got his blessing before going for every international tournament but as fate would have it, she could not go personally before the Paris event as she had to rush to get her visa and PCR tests done after approval to travel was granted at short notice.

“But the day before I left for Paris I called you and told you I could not come and that I had to leave the island as soon as possible. You also blessed me that day and asked me to bring a boxing T-shirt. I used to give him the boxing T-shirt I got as a souvenir at every tournament I attended. He took great pleasure in it,” she stated. “Boxing was like his life. He had told my mother to put two boxing gloves on his remains the day he died.”

“When I reach your last dream you are not alive today to hear it. You were strongly confident even more than me that I will fulfill your dream. I know you are blessing me from somewhere. Dear Dad, I wish you Nirvana. I apologise for not being able to be with you at the last minute,” she added in her moving tribute.

Thampu Selvam who changed his name to Thampu Sampath thinking of the situation in Sri Lanka was an outstanding sportsman who hailed from Rajarata Sports Club. The third child in a family of seven, he studied at Nivarathana Chethiya School and Vivekananda Tamil School. He was drafted into the Sri Lanka Navy in 1972 because of his sporting prowess. A gentle giant, he was an all-round sportsman excelling in football (goalkeeper) and athletics (javelin throw). A welterweight national boxing champion, he coached the Navy boxing team for 22 years even after retirement in 1984.

“I remember watching him box as an eight-year-old at the Depot Police when he became runner-up at the Nationals in the 81kgs weight,” recalled Nelka saddened by the fact that her father was not honoured by the Boxing Association during his lifetime even though he was a national champion, Navy coach and produced a daughter to be proud of in boxing.

“Even for a small meet he was not given any recognition by boxing authorities. I feel maybe because he held a small rank in the Navy and he was a Tamil. Only merit should be considered, not from where you are coming from, which caste, which place, which colour,” she said.

One of the life lessons she learnt was not to discriminate against anyone and to be a strong individual. “I derive my strength from my father who related how his mother served him milk rice (kiri bath),” said Nelka who had a nightmarish experience as a child during the 1983 anti-Tamil riots when they needed Navy protection from mobs and in 1989 when families of Armed Forces personnel were targeted during the JVP insurrection.

“That’s why I decided to join the Police for security and showcase my sporting talents,” said Nelka, a Chief Inspector attached to the Child and Women’s Bureau, who like her father was an outstanding sports star from her days at Rippon Girls College, Galle.

Leading Able Seaman Thambu Sampath was accorded a funeral with military honours befitting a war hero by the Navy.

“Their remembrance of his service to the Navy 24 years after he retired is more than enough. For a daughter to see the honour given to her father and a mother to see her husband being given the honours, there is nothing more than that. It is more valuable than all the accolades,” said Nelka with gratitude on behalf of the family at this time of grief.

Nelka Shiromala officiates as a boxing referee in this file photo