CEOs, sports personalities and young men who have been pushed to the brink share their stories at “Excellence in Action” By Shaveen Jeewandara Excellence is a word that is used in conjunction with the best. To be worthy of such an accolade must take acts of endeavour, perseverance and survival. What lay in store at [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Of great highs and lows


CEOs, sports personalities and young men who have been pushed to the brink share their stories at “Excellence in Action”

By Shaveen Jeewandara

Excellence is a word that is used in conjunction with the best. To be worthy of such an accolade must take acts of endeavour, perseverance and survival. What lay in store at “Excellence in Action”, a seminar organised by the’72 Batch of Royal College was quite clearly all this. Inspiration amid stories of life as it comes our way – of gutsy boxers, survivors at sea and men who take their daily professions to the next level.

“That’s when I saw the canvas, the left hook connected with my jaw and I saw the canvas,” dynamic Dian Gomes, Group Director of MAS Holdings, recalled his first bout of boxing. As first speaker of the evening, Dian had decided to narrate a tale of boxing that was closest to his heart.

Courage under stress: Naqeeb Hussain and and Asmath Iqbal

The story was that of an ordinary soldier who had what it took to end a 40-year long drought and represent the motherland at the greatest ring of them all – the Olympics. The boxers would wake up at five in the morning and run 9 kilometres. They’d do 200 push-ups, eat their breakfast and do 200 more. The sparring would then begin.

The rigorous training went on for the next three years, up until the Commonwealth Boxing Championships in Malaysia. “Anuruddha (Rathnayake) was an animal. He was hell-bent on bagging the gold. He was up against an Irish boxer and Manju (Wanniarachchi) took on a South African,” Dian recalled the moments, as he played a video clip of the match highlights. Emotions flooded the hall as the pictures showed the Lankan as the obvious winner but the judgment said otherwise. The pictures of the referee raising the opponent’s arms in the air and Anuruddha falling to his knees in despair. “They clearly win the fight but they don’t get the win. Life is full of surprises and defeats. They deserved the win, but life is not like that. That’s reality,” Dian told the audience.

Bearing the disappointments and staying true to yourself is what matters. Dian, the CEO was the corner-man. The corner-man gets 30 seconds to a minute to make sure that the boxer is spurred to take on the next round. “In those 30 seconds, you have to take his gum-shield, wash the spit off, give him a little bit of water and most importantly give him a word of inspiration. Just 30 seconds for all of this. Excellence comes with humility. Excellence comes with getting your feet on the ground and realizing that you need to make the comeback.”

Late 2008 – The nation lifts itself up from the fresh wounds of the war fuelled by the inspiration of a Sri Lankan son taking on the world. The match begins and the Brazilian lands a few heavy punches, Anuruddha gives it his all. Eight long years of hard work hinges on a single match, and Anuruddha loses it. “We’re all devastated. But from great devastation comes great inspiration,” Dian says. “Look son, there’s always a next time. How you face the process the next time is what defines you.”

A boxer’s story of getting a boxer to the Olympics was followed by Naqeeb Hussain and Asmath Iqbal’s account of being adrift at sea for over 24 hours. Their story was one of extreme perseverance spiced with an undeniable amount of luck.

“This was my 53rd dive, and Asmath’s 41st,” Naqeeb began, telling the audience how they had been underwater for 40 minutes, along with their diving master Olly and a French national, Patrice. After exploring an old wreck, they moved onto their standard safety routines while ascending, but an additional two minutes meant that they had drifted out to sea, away from their diving boats. Recalling their ordeal, the two survivors spoke of the power of optimism and assessing your resources at times when all hope seemed lost.

“Asmath was wearing the mask below the nose, and I asked him what he was doing,” Naqeeb says, to which Asmath replied saying that he was simply doing what Patrice was doing. This meant that they would not swallow sea-water and eventually dehydrate. The divers were wearing led belts that served the purpose of sinking them on a dive, but Naqeeb didn’t want to drop the weight since he thought the diving centre would charge for them – which they later found cost only Rs. 250.

In their chirpy account of their not-so-bubbly encounter, they reiterated the faith they had placed on the fact that they were going to make it alive to shore. “I pictured myself getting back on shore and having tea with Marie biscuits,” Naqeeb said. All the while they were trying to kick to shore by using the faint outlines of tall buildings as a reference. The only time they wavered was when a search boat came within 25 metres and turned back. “That was disheartening, but we kept surging on.”

“A ten-storey ship passed us by on the first day, so many trawlers passed by without the slightest glance to our frantic cries. We had been at sea for more than 24 hours. Our final ray of hope came in a small fishing boat that saw our waving frenzy. Its hull turned towards us and that’s when real relief gushed in,” Asmath recalls. “Ogollo mokada methane karanney” was what the fishermen asked, and the hall erupted into laughter.

To be born into an empire is easy, but the harder part is maintaining it and taking it to new heights, and that is exactly what Hiran Cooray, the unassuming Chairman of Jetwing Hotels had to do. “The most important thing to me is credibility,” said Hiran. “Credibility takes you places, and gets you out of tight situations.” Hiran’s story begins back in 1987 when he came back to Sri Lanka after his bachelor’s degree, and his father, the legendary hotelier Herbert Cooray asked him to take over the reins of the company– despite his reluctance. “Fidel Castro ran Cuba at the age of 25. You’re useless if you can’t run this little company, was my father’s reply,” Hiran laughs.
What ensued was nothing short of extraordinary, as Jetwing has risen to paramount heights much of the credit owing to its chairman’s drive and initiative.

Dr. Tariq Marikar spoke of the potential of the island to reach out in the telecommunication industry. An interesting aspect he brought out was the market edge of starting from scratch. “I was in Canada for some time and it struck me that they have much better roadways than America, that’s because they made them after the States. The same can be applied to Sri Lanka. We can turn a supposed lack into an advantage as we can learn from the networks established in developed countries,” he said.

Rajendra Theagarajah, Managing Director/CEO of Hatton National Bank in his address spoke of the importance of giving people a second chance if their mistakes are genuine. “You have to always make the commitment to the team that you are in. Being a leader is about defending your team at any cost, and knowing how to deal with each and every person without any inhibition.” The real challenge is knowing when to give up before you become an ornament, he said in conclusion.

The much awaited speaker of the evening, star cricketer and former Sri Lanka captain Kumar Sangakkara gave the audience a chance to bombard him with questions. First he was asked what the emotions were like in the dressing room after losing the 2011 World Cup Final in Mumbai. “We were devastated. Demolished. The 96’ World Cup had set a benchmark, and you want to feel like a winner and live up to the aspirations of the millions of Sri Lankans. But those hopes were all dashed. There’s nothing more that I could tell my team, but to take responsibility and move on. 20 years from now, I’ll still remember that day and feel the same emotions, but that’s life. Moving on is important,” he said.

When asked about his involvement in many aspects beyond the boundary, he was candid. “Cricket is a brilliant game, but it’s a game nonetheless. It’s not everything in life. It would be pretty disappointing if I had to end my life solely as a cricketer. I’d want to give back as much as I could. We’re all touching lives on a daily basis, and that’s what matters.”

Touching lives, and inspiring them was the mandate of “Excellence in Action” and it was a night to cherish, as the greats in their own playing fields shared their secrets of success.

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