From guns to javelin: War hero targets gold at Tokyo Paralympics | Sunday Observer

From guns to javelin: War hero targets gold at Tokyo Paralympics

25 July, 2021
Priyantha Herath is going places since picking up the javelin after his left hand was disabled following gunshot wounds sustained during the war
Priyantha Herath is going places since picking up the javelin after his left hand was disabled following gunshot wounds sustained during the war

Dinesh Priyantha Herath dares to tread where Sri Lanka’s Olympians can only dream of in Tokyo:

Sri Lanka has never won a gold medal in the history of the Summer Olympic Games. The only two medals in the Olympics came 52 years apart when Susanthika Jayasinghe was awarded the silver in the 200 metres at the 2000 Sydney Games after Duncan White won the country’s first ever medal when he finished second in the 400m hurdles at the 1948 Games in London.

Despite the loud boasts of officials and marketing hype, Sri Lanka does not stand a chance of even fighting for a medal at the XXXII Olympiad in Tokyo where the nine-member contingent is competing in athletics, badminton, equestrian, gymnastics, judo, shooting and swimming.

However, a war hero turned para-athlete Dinesh Priyantha Herath is on the cusp of bringing glory to Sri Lanka at the Summer Paralympic Games in Tokyo next month. The 35-year-old father of three who hails from Kekirawa in the Anuradhapura district never took part in sports seriously even after he joined the Army in 2004 after completing his education at Kagama Dhathusena Maha Vidyalaya.

Being attached to the third Gajaba Regiment he was a part of the 57th Brigade which was engaged in the final push to eliminate the LTTE. He was felled by gun fire while defending his line in Killinochchi town against the enemy in December 2008 just months before the civil war ended. His left arm was disabled by the gun shot wounds and spent nearly four years in rehabilitation to recuperate from the injury. As the breadwinner in the family after having lost his father when he was 12 and having just married a few months before his injury, his future looked bleak as he contemplated his future living with a disabled hand in the prime of his youth.

A man who was willing to put his life on the line to protect the sovereignty of the country does not give up easily whatever the odds. With the encouragement of his superiors in the Army he took part in badminton and volleyball becoming the Best Player in the inter-regiment Para Athletics competition in 2012 in addition to winning gold medals in the throwing event. His life-changing moment came when he picked up the javelin throwing record distances in the F46 category at national and international level.

Twice a silver medallist at the World Para Athletics Championships in London (2017) and Dubai (2019), Herath is determined to break the world record and create history at the Tokyo Paralympics to be held from August 24 to September 5 . It is no idle boast but a realistic target from Sri Lanka’s leading para-athlete who won a gold medal at the 2018 Asian Para Games in Jakarta. Flag-bearer at this Games where Sri Lanka bagged a record haul of 15 medals (five gold, five silver and five bronze), Herath is poised to spearhead the nation’s hunt for a gold in the Tokyo Paralympics.

His progressive career record since he won a gold medal throwing a distance of over 52 metres on his international debut in Malaysia in 2012 speaks volumes. This event was a qualifier for the 2012 London Paralympics but he was not selected because he was not among the world rankings. He retired from the Army as a Corporal on medical grounds in 2014 but pursued his new-found passion by joining the SL Gajaba Sports Club.

Sixth in his event at the 2014 Asian Para Games in Incheon, South Korea and at the 2015 World Para Athletics Championship in Qatar, it nevertheless provided the spark to fuel his dream of going for the Paralympics. It became a reality when he threw a distance of 55.23m at an Olympic qualifying meet in Germany.

Sri Lanka’s record holder in the F46 javelin event came out all guns blazing in the 2016 Rio Paralympics to win a bronze medal with a personal best of 58.38m to become the second Paralympian after Pradeep Sanjaya (2012 London) to achieve this feat which also earned him promotion to the rank of Sergeant.

Herath lived up to his billing and continued to throw the javelin further and renewing his Sri Lanka record to win silver at the 2017 World Para Athletic Championships in London (59.93m), gold at the 2018 Asian Para Games in Jakarta (Games record of 61.84m) and silver at the 2019 World Para Athletics Championship in Dubai (60.59m).

“I hope to break the world record and win the gold medal,” said Herath simply. It would require a monumental effort but he is within touching distance of the world record of 63.97m held by India’s Devendra who won the gold in Rio.

“I have confidence in myself because of the training I received in the Army and my experiences in the war have given me strength and courage,” said the war veteran who was at the helm during the humanitarian operations serving in danger zones such as Pooneryn and Vavuniya.

He derives confidence from his personal best throw of 63.70m at the 2018 National Para Athletics Championship in Diyagama. He is also bolstered by the patronage given by the Sports Ministry after being inducted into the High Performance programme. His coach for the past four years Pradeep Nishantha singled him out as a dedicated athlete.

“He threw over 62 metres three weeks ago. He is peaking at the right time. His training was not affected by the restrictions due to coronavirus since he was training with the Elite pool in Colombo’s Torrington Sports Complex,” said Nishantha who has been the national throwing coach since 2005 being an IAAF Level 3 certified coach.

“He has the potential to break the world record and improve his throwing distance with three weeks to go for the Games,” said Nishantha, a former Sri Lanka record holder himself in the javelin and also coached Rio Olympian Sumedha Ranasinghe. “He is our best prospect for a gold medal in Tokyo,” declared Nishantha, silver medallist at the Asian Grand Prix, who is employed at Gateway International as Assistant Head of Sport as well as athletic coach.

“Nothing is impossible if you train properly and work towards your target with determination by maintaining your fitness and avoid unnecessary distractions,” said Herath who dares to change Sri Lanka’s history at the Olympics by straining every muscle in his body to rise Phoenix-like to attain his golden target not with bullets but with the javelin.