From humble beginnings to glittering Gold | Daily News
The inspiring story of Dinesh Priyantha Herath

From humble beginnings to glittering Gold

Samitha Dulan Kodithuwakku (Left), Dinesh Priyantha (Right) and their Coach Pradeep Nishantha (Middle)
Samitha Dulan Kodithuwakku (Left), Dinesh Priyantha (Right) and their Coach Pradeep Nishantha (Middle)

Sri Lanka’s latest sporting hero Dinesh Priyantha Herath touched down in Sri Lanka to a red-carpet airport welcome on Tuesday. The life story of the F46 Javelin Throw Gold medalist at the Tokyo Paralympics is an inspirational one of how to overcome disabilities both economic and physical.

When Dinesh Priyantha using his abled right arm threw the javelin a distance of 67.79 metres creating a world record and winning Sri Lanka’s first-ever Gold medal at a Paralympics event, it enlivened a depressed nation trying to overcome the Covid-19 pandemic.

Immediately after winning Gold under the glare of international TV cameras, he grabbed a large Sri Lankan flag, laid it on the track, kneeled down and kissed the flag. Perhaps an unprecedented act at an Olympics event, it raised the emotions of a nation to a fever pitch. “I am very happy because my main dream came true. I have no words to describe (the feeling),” he told the media afterwards.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, himself a military man, tweeted a congratulatory message immediately after this Gold medal winning feat. “Your service in fighting for Sri Lanka as a soldier and putting us on the international sporting map is remarkable,” said the President.

In the week since Dinesh won Gold on August 30, he has become a media pin-up boy both in the mainstream and social media, on par with Sri Lanka’s legendary cricketers of the past. In an editorial titled “A Man Worth His Weight in Gold,” the Island newspaper said: “These troubled times are devoid of anything positive, but some good news came yesterday, from Tokyo, enlivening the depressed Sri Lankans, who are fighting the pandemic and battling lockdown blues.” The editorial paid tribute to Dinesh’s ability “to fight really hard to turn his disability into ability. His rise in the world of sports has been truly impressive and inspiring.”

Dinesh was born into a village farming family near the historic city of Anuradhapura and went to a village school—Kagama Dathusena Maha Vidyalaya. His father died when Dinesh was 12 years old, he had an elder sister and younger brother, but as the eldest son he had to help his mother in the farm and the responsibility of earning a living for his family fell on his shoulders. Thus, at the age of 18, he joined the Army, to support his family.

At the time, the Sri Lanka Army was fighting a vicious civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) regarded as one of the most ruthless terrorist groups in the world.

In December 2008, at the height of the war when Sri Lankan Forces were pushing towards the LTTE stronghold, he was shot thrice on his left arm from bullets fired from a T-56 gun, and it almost killed him. The next four years of his youthful life was spent at the Ragama ‘Ranaviru Sevana’—an Army rehabilitation centre—getting treated and regaining the confidence to start another new chapter in his life.

Dinesh Priyantha, the F46 Javelin Throw Gold medalist at the Tokyo Paralympics

After his rehabilitation, senior members of his Gajaba Regiment encouraged Dinesh to take up sports to build self-confidence. He has told the media in various interviews that he never played sports at school, except softball cricket with friends on a patch of grass in the village.

Army sports officials introduced Dinesh to the javelin, because he could use only one arm for sporting activity and his tall physique suited the sport. In his first competitive throw at the Army Inter Regiment Para Games—he won a Gold medal setting a national record and he has not looked back since then.

Dulan Kodithuwakku won a Bronze medal in the F64 Javelin throw event

Having got used to heartbreaks and hardships from his young days, he was able to take sporting success and failures in stride. He was disappointed at not being included in the world rankings to take part in the 2012 London Paralympics even after winning Gold at an Asian meet in Malaysia. But he was able to work through Asian and International Para Games circuits to qualify for the Rio Paralympics where he won a Bronze medal, Sri Lanka’s first medal at a Paralympics.

Within three years Dinesh had won medals at three major Para championships: a medal at the Olympics, a medal at the World Para Athletics Championship and a Gold at the 2018 Asian Para Games. His determination saw him win his second World Para Athletics Championship medal, when he clinched a silver medal at the 2019 edition held in Dubai.

Dinesh expressing his gratitude to the Motherland after winning Gold

“Sports added so much value to my life. After being wounded it was sports that showed me a new dimension in life, and it paved the way for me to become a recognised medal-winning athlete,” he had said after winning Silver in the world championship. Thus, Dinesh was selected to lead the nine-member Sri Lankan team for the Tokyo Paralympics, where he carried the National Flag to the stadium at the opening ceremony.

Just four months before he was shot, Dinesh married Ishanka Maduwanthi and they now have three children including an eight-month-old boy. They had to survive on the Army pension, but his wife has supported him while he pursued a sporting path.

After receiving the Gold medal in Tokyo an emotional Dinesh has dedicated it to his wife. “I have three children and my wife looks after them very well. She motivates me. Our youngest child is only eight months old. (My wife) has done everything. She has given me freedom to do sport. I thank my wife for this Gold,” Dinesh has said after the ceremony, where the Sri Lankan National Anthem was played perhaps for the first time at an Olympics venue.

He and his wife need not worry anymore about surviving on his pension. The Sports Ministry has announced that Dinesh Priyantha will receive a cash reward of Rs. 50 million (US$ 250,000) which is huge in the Sri Lankan context. Sri Lanka Cricket – the governing body of cricket in Sri Lanka—has also announced that they will be awarding him an undisclosed sum of money which is expected to go into millions of rupees. He may also get cash rewards from the corporate sector and other donors. He has also been gifted with a brand new car by the Vehicle Importers Association.

Dinesh is a wonderful story of guts, grit and determination, a story that highlights that what others may call disabilities should not be an excuse if you have the willpower. All these qualities have paid off handsomely, and now Dinesh Priyantha Herath is part of Sri Lanka's history, which should inspire more Sri Lankan para-athletes in the future. Incidentally, his compatriot Samitha Dulan Kodithuwakku won a Bronze medal in the F64 Javelin throw event, bringing greater glory for Sri Lanka. This is also the first time that Sri Lanka won medals at an Olympics event after Susanthika Jayasinghe’s 200m Silver in Sydney in 2000.

Recalling that day, while the rest of the pack wilted under the blazing heat and humidity, Dinesh Priyantha Herath was in his element, and he was loving it.

“I was ready for this challenge and was training under the sun for months now. The climate here in Tokyo and Sri Lanka are pretty much the same and I was clearly in the zone from the start. I just enjoyed the weather out here today as it was like I was training in my backyards,” said a jubilant Herath, who did not let go of the Lankan flag for even a second and was seen carrying it around all through to the changing room.

Herath stole the show from firm favourite India’s Devendra Jhajharia, who settled for the silver with his best throw of 64.35. Jhajharia’s compatriot Sundar Singh Gurjar won the Bronze medal in the same event with his best throw of 64.01.

Herath, who severely injured his left arm during a military action against the LTTE took to Para sport in 2014. But the more time he spent doing sport, the more difficult it became for his family; financially, it was not sustainable and he was relying on the pension from the Army.

“Yes, my wife was very upset with me doing the sport. However, now she supports me. I have three kids and I can’t wait to go and see them. They will be thrilled to see me back with a Gold,” said Herath, whose deep scars from three bullet wounds are evident on his left arm.

Our Para Olympions get heroes' welcome on arrival

“It took me four years to piece my hand together. Those were the most testing times of my life. However, javelin has given me everything, it has helped me get my life back together and this Gold is the result of all the hard work that I have put in,” said Herath.

Back at the 2019 World Championships in Dubai, Herath settled for a sliver behind Jhajharia. The duo shares a friendly rivalry and though the competition is fierce while on the field of play, off it the bond goes beyond leaps and bounds.

 Sri Lankan contingent to the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics Games

“You know we both started together and have great respect for each other. It’s like a journey together and it is great to see the sport growing in Asia. If we can contribute to the development of the sport, then nothing will be like it. Today I have put Sri Lanka on the map.”

“You will be surprised to know there are so many kids now following the sport of javelin,” he continued. “It has simply picked up. There is a belief now that we can compete with the Europeans. You will see. Asia will emerge as a superpower in the javelin in the coming years.”

He now looks forward to Paris 2024.

(IDN, International Paralympics Committee)

He and Dulan were gifted with brand new cars by the Vehicle Importers Association


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