Acing it for Sri Lanka

26 Oct

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It’s not just our cricket team that we need be proud of as world class. Just returned to Sri Lanka after a triumphant series in which they emerged the Asian Champions is our Girls’ Netball team. They solidly defeated the defending Asian Champion, Singapore by a resounding 77-48. We are justly proud of all our girls.

This victory is due in no small measure to the fact that Sri Lanka has Asia’s tallest netball player, Tharjini Sivalingam who is quite likely also the tallest person in Sri Lanka with her amazing 6 ft 10” height. Out of the 77 shots in the winning play off, it was Tharjini who scored 74. She was also named the best shooter of the match with a total score of 380.

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Having known Tharjini personally for a while now having lived with her in the same hostel, I knew her to be an extremely balanced young woman. Even then a netball star, she had no airs and graces about herself nor did she ever take offence at the numerous teasing remarks or open stares that her height engendered. For a young woman to experience both celebrity status on one hand and incredulity and idiotic remarks on the other and still remain unaffected by either is a remarkable achievement but Tharjini somehow managed it.

Her new found sudden stardom instead of going to her head has only left her a little bemused and disoriented. Though a friendly extrovert usually, the extreme media pressure has driven her to try to keep a low profile. She claims to be very happy for the sake of her country that Sri Lanka has emerged the Asian Netball champion and very happy that she did so well but she still seems a little shocked and mildly irritated by her sudden national fame. The media is apparently not leaving her in peace and right now she intensely requires some peace and quiet.

Tharjini with her nephew at their village temple

Tharjini with her nephew at their village temple

In fact she kept evading me too until I tracked her down and demanded to know what her problem was. Sheepishly, she said she had no personal problem with me but she really had no time for all the diverse media institutions hounding her.

Yet, despite her sudden star status, all the vibes I get from her are that of bemusement and mild irritation and none of smug satisfaction or self glory about herself. This particular lady, despite her extensive height doesn’t easily get her head into the clouds.

Though as a hostel-mate living alongside her, I had seen for myself that she never took offence at seemingly offensive or personal questions, I had never  asked any myself. Now as a reporter, I had to and warned her so. She was instantly amused. “Why, are you going to ask me about my boy friend?”

Er..No, I had no idea she had one to begin with but I would be certainly glad to hear all about him.

“Ha, No – I don’t have a boyfriend. You can ask all the personal questions you want, go ahead” she invited so we got down to it.

Tharjini was born the fifth of six children to a tamil family in the village of Evinai, Punnalaikattuvan, Jaffna, where she did her entire schooling. She then went to the Eastern University in Batticoloa to do her degree in Tamil. It was during her first year at this university, she was ‘discovered’. She had been representing the Batticoloa district at a tournament in Vavuniya. That was just five short years ago – 2004 and the rest is history. Though still at her first year in university, she came down to Colombo to join the National Netball team. The Eastern University authorities were very helpful and accommodating she says and so she went down only for her exams, which she depended on self study to get through.  She had to juggle her self study with strenuous netball practices and employment at Seylan Bank but nevertheless successfully got her degree. Apparently her childhood ambition had not been anything as fanciful as becoming an international star. She had always wanted to be a university lecturer in Tamil, a dream she still aspires to.

Asked where she got her height from, she smilingly answers, ‘God’.

Oh, so it’s not from her family?

“No – everyone in my family is of only average height. This is certainly not genetic.”

Apparently, she had always been exceptionally tall, a tall baby, a tall child and adolescent and now a tall young woman. She stopped growing only when she was 22.

“By the time I was doing A’levels, I was the tallest in school and that includes our principal. He was 6’ 1”, I was 6’2”,” she grins.

She says she felt slightly awkward at first, especially with all the comments and stares she got, but now she has learnt to be comfortable with her height and has learnt to take the comments in stride.

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‘I am quite happy with my height now. After all this is what got me into the national team, made me a star and got us the Asian Netball Championship.’

She credits her coach, both at Seylan Bank and the National team, Thilaka Jinadasa for her current success. ‘She deserves the credit for coaching us so well, she was a very strict and demanding coach but that is how she made us into exceptional players’, says Tharjini.  She adds that they were more worried about beating Malaysia than Singapore as it was to Malaysia they lost out in the semi finals for the last championship in 2005. ‘But we planned and strategized and coordinated extensively to win the championship this year and we did.’

Having come beyond her wildest dreams as an internationally acclaimed star, Tharjini should have no cause for unhappiness one would think, but she has a few. ‘It’s very hard to live away from my family in a hostel. To travel by bus everyday is even more of a problem with my height. I have to be half bent if I have to travel standing as quite often happens during rush hours and it is vey difficult’, she says.

What’s happened to all the gentlemen out there? Don’t you know to offer your seats to a lady? Next time make sure you do and bow as you do so, this is no ordinary lady, she is a national heroine who has brought honour to the country.

One would think that a National netball player would be financially well compensated but apparently that is not so, the expenses of living in Colombo and her frequent jaunts abroad for foreign tournaments  is also a source of worry for her. ‘This time Seylan Bank sponsored my trip for the tournament but sometimes I have to depend on my parents and I feel bad about putting that pressure on them,’ says Tharjini. ‘In countries like India, I understand that some companies come forward to sponsor the players and their  expenses and I think it would be a great idea to adopt that practice here too, as I find the expenses are sometimes beyond me.’

But overall she is very happy to be where she is now, grateful to all those who have made her what she is and hopes to keep on bringing in more fame and glory to Sri Lanka. Here’s to many more such championships.

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Photos taken from Tharjini’s facebook page with her permission.

Note: I wrote this article in 2009 to be published in the Sunday Times – which published an edited version of this.

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