A highly contended Head Coach of the national swimming team that bagged seven gold, 11 silver and 18 bronze medals at the South Asian Games (SAG) 2019 held in Nepal, Manoj Abeysinghe, however, has a minor heartache back of his mind. His only worry had nothing to do with swimming, but prestige, which in return [...]


Coach Manoj calls for structural overhaul to boost swimming


Manoj Abeysinghe was instrumental as the Head Coach of the Sri Lanka SAG teams in 2016 and 2019

A highly contended Head Coach of the national swimming team that bagged seven gold, 11 silver and 18 bronze medals at the South Asian Games (SAG) 2019 held in Nepal, Manoj Abeysinghe, however, has a minor heartache back of his mind. His only worry had nothing to do with swimming, but prestige, which in return could pave the way to excellence.

What ended 40 days ago in Kathmandu, still smarts Abeysinghe, who does not consider himself the national swimming coach. As any other coach in any sport, Abeysinghe too has dreams, despite being a comprehensive professional swimming coach, who has put country before self. With experience of over 20 years in the United States of America (USA) as a reputed coach, Abeysinghe strongly believes that Sri Lanka ‘must’ make a complete overhaul of the attitude and respect given to swimming, in particular by the parents and education authorities.

Today, as the Head Coach of Killer Whale Aquatics (KWA), Abeysinghe continues with his day-to-day activities, training swimmers to reach the next level while moving forward with his reputation as one of the highly qualified and respected swimming coaches of Sri Lanka.

While spelling out his opinions to make swimming, one of the impact-making sports of Sri Lanka, back of his mind, Abeysinghe has set his sights in beating India, fair and square, in swimming in the region, which he highlighted as an opportunity missed, a few weeks ago.

“I’m satisfied with what we did at the SAG, but at the same time I’m disappointed that we failed to beat India in the pool, and we had that opportunity, maybe for the first time. Unfortunately due to three of our best swimmers being out because of genuine injuries or sickness, we failed,” Abeysinghe stated.

India had won 27 gold medals in swimming at SAG, while Sri Lanka won seven, solely by their ace swimmer Matthew Abeysinghe, who is also the third son of Abeysinghe, the senior. Sri Lanka had three notable absentees – Kyle Abeysinghe, Cherantha de Silva and Kimiko Raheem – who had to withdraw from the final squad due to injuries or sickness.

According to coach Abeysinghe’s hypothetical calculation, as an expert, Sri Lanka should have topped the list in swimming with 19 gold medals, though in reality the number is a contrast.

“With Kyle and Cherantha in the team we could have at least won two individual gold medals, and the other two relays could have been also won easily. That’s four gold medals, India then would be 23 and Sri Lanka 11 gold medals. Had Kimiko made it, based on times swum and her timings, she would have easily won six gold medals, which makes Sri Lanka and India 17 golds each. With Kimiko in the relay team we could have won at least two relays or three the most, which says the story,” he detailed.

What Abeysinghe simply tries to spell out is the importance of implementing a proper policy, where athletes, or swimmers in particular, should be provided a clear means for higher education, building of a structure that supports the athletes beyond school years, and importantly, the US Collegiate system, through which Sri Lanka can benefit.

“Since 1991, a handful of people have swum in their 20s and won medals at SAG level, that’s the reason why Sri Lanka is not progressing internationally in swimming. If you take India, most of their swimmers are in their 20s, girls and boys. They somehow retain their athletes longer, and we don’t.”

Justifying his statement, Sri Lanka experienced a huge vacuum in-between the eras of these four swimmers, who won gold medals for the country at South Asian level, and even managed to go beyond.

But Abeysinghe, a star class General in the pool, has made thorough observations since settling down in Sri Lanka after coaching in the USA for nearly two decades. He named the attitude of the parents and tuition classes as the biggest killers of the potential swimmer.

“The tuition class business has to be stopped for the athletes. I have been training for over 20 years in the USA, I never had to deal with it. If you take 24 hours in a day, six hours they go to school and additional three hours if they go for tuition, where is the time to train,” he questioned.

For a coach that manages a club that has produced swimmers who won 22 SAG gold medals in its two recent editions, Abeysinghe finds it confusing why matters cannot be streamlined for swimmers to have continuity, even beyond the school days and the lack of a proper club structure, besides the one-off annual national championship.

“As a norm, 90 per cent of the swimmers here do not swim beyond their school years. There are two reasons for that – there is no structure in place to facilitate them. Our swimming is geared towards schoolchildren, and certain interested parties won’t let it go beyond that. They say certain clubs want to make money doing competitions. Of course that’s true, who in their right mind would invest a lot of money and won’t reap a financial benefit.”

Sri Lanka has two swimming clubs in total. Besides Abeysinghe’s KWA, the other – Rainbow Aquatics, is managed and run by swimming great Julian Bolling. Even without a proper structure for schoolchildren, who regard swimming as important as an academic subject, almost every popular school in Sri Lanka is equipped with a swimming complex.

“There are private squads, other than these two clubs, and those can be turned into clubs with proper incentives. If you have that club structure in place, if a child wants to swim beyond their school years, they will have the opportunity. Cricket and rugby, the two most successful sports in the country is at this level, and they don’t get athletes straight from school. They have a secondary structure to pick the best players. It’s high time that swimming is taken up seriously as a medal prospect sport,” he explained.

Going back to where he started off, Abeysinghe reaffirmed that the culture and system in Sri Lanka and the attitude of the parents of the swimmers, have failed to put due value in many sports, in particular swimming. He urged the need to change that culture, and the assurance of the relevant authorities to ensure that potential national swimmers are scouted early and given proper status.

“In order to do that I think the government needs to understand that a student athlete, some of the time as others are using for studies, may not be able to give out as someone who does only studies. The government must ensure that they give that confident to students and ensure, who are doing sports, that they are not forsaking their education. They must ensure that due breaks are given, not to expect the standards achieved by someone who does only studies, that their efforts and commitments are valued and in return the country will benefit.”

But sadly Sri Lanka is yet to embrace that culture as in the USA, where a student athlete’s future is fully secured. Even the handful of national athletes who qualify for universities, are sometimes forced to choose between sport and education.

“No parent in their right mind, would allow their child to do a sport, which affects their life after sports. These kind of hurdles that blocks the path of an athlete needs to be removed and streamlined,” stressed Abeysinghe, who highly recommended the US collegiate system.

“The US collegiate system, develops the most number of athletes for Olympics, where the actual number of gold medals won by America is not just the USA national team. There are a lot of swimmers from other countries who are training in USA through this system. Other than Matthew and Kimiko, there isn’t any other who are good enough to qualify for a scholarship. We have a big job in getting more of our good swimmers qualify for this scholarship. But even if they did they will not get a full scholarship.”

If the relevant authorities take Abeysinghe’s word a bit seriously, which he strongly advocates as a necessity for the country, Sri Lanka could pin hopes on podium finishes at Asian Games, Commonwealth Games and even the Olympics in future.

“Going beyond SAG, it’s possible but not very likely. It’s my view. Maybe others can come out with their own ideas and views, but to put the sport in the map. All must work in cohesion. For the next two editions of SAG, we have the ability to beat India. Our next thing is Asian Games. All consider India as a big player, but even with limited resources, we can challenge them. I’m pushing for excellence in swimming, not for anything else,” stated the mastermind behind success in swimming.

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