Akalanka – A youth who balanced sports and education to perfection
By Vimukthi Adithya
Multitasking by any means is not a walk in the park. Writing youre A/L exam away from home while participating at the Asian Games adds pressure, and not everyone is able to strike a balance of that sort, but one determined teenager knew he could, and achieved it against all odds. Akalanka Peiris went into history as the first student to sit the A/L exam outside the country.
The opening ceremony of the 2018 Asian Games was held on 18 August at Gelora Bung Kamo Stadium in Jakarta. The Sri Lankan contingent of 173 (131 men and 42 women) was the biggest team the island had sent to the Games. While 172 of them were in their best attire to attend the opening ceremony behind flag bearer Dinusha Gomes, 18-year-old Peterite Akalanka was locked up with two invigilators in a room at the Sri Lankan Embassy taking his General English A/L paper.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo declared open the 18th Asian Games in a spectacular opening ceremony, but there was no fun for Akalanka who was sitting the first of three exams, the other two being General Intelligence (20th) and Accounting (21st).
Born on 11 December 2000 in Panadura and eldest of the family, Dimuth Akalanka Peiris first attended Prince of Wales Moratuwa up to Grade 3, and then switched to St. Peter’s Bambalapitiya until his A/Ls.
Akalanka was only five when he decided to start a special relationship with water. “Whenever our family had outings my father used to take me to the pool. I was very scared, but my father saw potential in me and decided to be my coach and mentor. After a few months my father was impressed by how I had overcome my fear of the water, so he decided to enroll me at the Hotel Ranmal swimming club.
At seven, I participated in the SESCA swimming meet conducted by Ambalangoda, Dharmashoka. I became the champion in my age group (under-9). Even though it was a small club meet, the certificate said ‹All Island Champions›. That positive mindset affected me and I then decided to train harder,” said Akalanka, taking his memory back to his first few years at the pool.
Akalanka swam not with the intention of being a champion, but for pure enjoyment and relaxation. In 2008 at the Milo All Island Swimming Championship, Akalanka became the under-9 National champion. His career blossomed from there and from 2016 to 2019 he was the national champion.
After his first National Meet in 2008, the next significant Meet in his career was the National Junior Championships in 2013, where he became the champion, and retained it in 2014 too, while establishing ten records. This talented boy has broken and established 82 national age group records from 2008 to 2019.
Akalanka’s first international experience was when he flew to China for the 2013 Asian School Games at the age of 13. In 2015 he travelled to Singapore to participate in the World Junior Championship as a 15-year-old, but could not perform as expected since he was up against many 19-year-olds. In the Asian Age Group Championship held in Thailand, he performed well and became the 7th fastest of the region in the Under-17 category.
“I did my O /L in 2016 and obtained 9 ‘A’s. Straight after O/L’s I represented the country at the South Asian Games (SAG) held in India, but was unable to win any medals. I came 4th in the 50m backstroke, 4th in the 50m butterfly, and 5th in the 100m backstroke. At that time, I was not fully committed to the sport. After not performing well at the SAG, I was very disappointed and wanted to redeem myself, so I started to train hard. Two months after the SAG, the Asian School Games (ASG) were held in Indonesia, where I won Silver medals for the 50m butterfly and 50m backstroke. Two months after the ASG, I travelled to Russia to take part in the International School Games, which is also known as the mini-Olympics. Only those born during 2000 – 2003 participated in the Games. I won the Gold medal for the 100m backstroke and became the world’s fastest,” said Akalanka, speaking about a handful of his achievements.
Akalanka took his failure in the 2016 SAG seriously, and this was once again proved in the 2017 Youth Commonwealth Games, where he became the 4th fastest in the Commonwealth region and went on to establish his first SL National record for the 50m butterfly event, and then proceeded to establish another National record for the 50m backstroke after claiming 5th spot.
Next in line was the World Junior Championships in the USA. Akalanka was ranked 20th in the under-19 category. The boy was growing in stature and gaining experience with each Meet, showing glimpses of a champion swimmer in the making. This was evident when he won and established records at the Asian Age Group Championships held in Uzbekistan in 2017. Akalanka clinched two Golds and a Silver, while establishing three National records for the 50m butterfly, 50m backstroke and 100m backstroke. Due to his exceptional performances, Akalanka was crowned Emerging Player of the Year in 2015, 2016, and 2017 at the Milo Colours Awards.
2018 was a hectic year for Akalanka as he was on the verge of sitting for his A/L. He was initially doing his A/Ls in the mathematics stream, but since it was hard to cope with swimming and studies, had switched to commerce and had only 6 months before the exams. He travelled to Australia in March for the Commonwealth Games to compete in the 50m backstroke event. Akalanka advanced to the semis and finished as the 9th fastest after establishing a new National record with 26.52sec. The 4*100m freestyle relay team (Mathew Abeysinghe, Cherantha de Silva, Kyle Abeysinghe and Akalanka Peiris) also advanced to the finals and established a National record with a timing of 3.22.84mins.
“After the Commonwealth Games was the Asian Games, and at the same time I had to sit my A/Ls too. The reason we went to the Asian Games was that our relay team was identified as a Bronze medal prospect. I raised my concerns with the National Olympic Committee and questioned: what in the worst-case scenario we are unable to get the medal, in which case I will be losing my A/L’s and one year of my studies too, because my motive was not only to be just an athlete but also to have a good education and build up a good professional career. Having obtained 9 ‘A’s at the O/L, I wanted to do well in my A/L. I wanted to balance the Asian Games and my A/Ls.
“My parents found out there is a law we can do any Government related exams in that relevant country’s Embassy. My parents then spoke to the Ministry of Education and it was Colonel Manjula Kariyawasam who came forward to help me, and finally we got approval. It was not easy for me; straight after an event I had to do a paper, and after I had to do an event,” said Akalanka about the balancing act.
After his Accounting paper Akalanka took part in the 4*100 freestyle relay, which was considered a Bronze medal prospect. Mathew Abeysinge swam the first lap int 49.16 seconds to finish first in their heat, but unfortunately a false start from one of the team members saw them getting disqualified.
After the Asian Games, Akalanka wanted to join the Sri Lanka Army, so he enrolled at the Kotelawala Defence University (KDU) in 2019 as a Cadet Officer. He then attended the World Championships held in Korea, but due to his busy schedule at KDU he could not perform up to expectations. Akalanka then had to make a decision: whether to concentrate on swimming or to continue his cadeting. He decided on the former and hit the pools hard and engaged in intense training. Akalanka then brought out the warrior in him by winning a Gold, three Silvers and three Bronze medals at the 2019 SAG. The only athlete who had more medals was Mathew Abeysinghe.
“First thing sports taught me was discipline. It is not all about how you talk and associate with people. Discipline is also about how you carry yourself from the time you wake up, engaging in your daily routine, to going to sleep. You need to have discipline and be aware of what your targets and motives are. Sports taught me how to consider a loss as a gain and learn from it, and how to be humble and down to earth after victory, and work harder to achieve more. The impact that sports has added to my life cannot be expressed in words,” said Akalanka, touching on how sports has added to his personality.
Hitting the pool during lockdown was not possible, but Akalanka did not stay idle. He used that time to exercise at home, study, do intensive training, cycle a few kms, and also engaged in yoga and meditation, because after all, staying fit and active is one essential element for an athlete.
“The support I received from my parents is immense. Without their contribution an Akalanka would not have been here. Whenever I was about to give up, they motivated me to stay focused. My parents never pushed me to become the winner; all they said was to give 100 per cent to what I do and be perfect at it without thinking about any competitors. All they wanted me to do was to concentrate on my own race and enjoy what I do. That is the same advice I would like to give to young children and their parents too; do not concentrate on winning. Parents should never pressurize the kids; they should let them enjoy their childhood. Parents should not try to make kids hate their childhood, push them to give their best shot at anything, and look into the food the kids consume,” said Akalanka, touching on how his parents helped him.
Swimming for the Army team, Akalanka idolizes his father, and in his sporting career he considers Michael Phelps and Caleb Dressel as his role models. Apart from being a national level swimmer Akalanka is a management level CIMA student.