Chat with Milo Champions: Amalka Gunathilaka – coach behind undisputed Netball Champions HFC Kurunegala
By Vimukthi Adithya
Holy Family Convent, Kurunegala was established on 8 September 1870 with the motto Glory to God alone. Even though this Catholic girls' school has a rich history of 150 years, the school was not known for any remarkable achievement.
It was the year 2008 which brought them fortune through Netball. Since then, for 12 long years the girls have been winning the Milo Schools Netball Championship. Every year they would play in the finals of each age group, and walk away with the champion’s trophy. 12 long years, consecutively, undisputed champions!
Credit for teaching Netball, moulding the girls, and motivating them should go to their dedicated coach, Amalka Gunathilaka.
Born in Maspotha, Kurunegala, young Amalka had a privileged childhood, being the only child in the family. Being a student of HFC Kurunegala, Amalka engaged in many sports - basketball, volleyball, netball, and athletics. Having tasted success at all-island level, she became a Physical Training Instructor (PTI) in 1989 and served in many schools.
In 2000, she joined her own Alma Mater, but was later transferred to a rural school. When Sister Sriyani Rodrigo was appointed Principal of HFC, she invited Amalka to take over as netball coach.
When she started in 2003, the under-19 team had only about seven girls as the sport was not taken very seriously, and they didn’t have a major netball trophy in their cabinet. Amalka had a clear vision and a long-term plan in place to change this. First, she decided to form an under-12 squad. A handful joined and Amalka decided to put her maximum effort with these girls. The kids gained immediate success in the 2004 Milo Schools Netball Championship, clinching the under-12 trophy to the surprise of many, and this encouraged Amalka towards her goal.
They won the under-12 championship again in 2005, and the under-14 category in 2006. In 2007 the under-12 girls emerged 2nd runner-up, while the under-14 girls clinched the title. The talented kids kept on winning as they moved up the age groups. In 2008, their cumulative scores in the under-12, 14 and 16 championships were enough for them to clinch the overall championship in the absence of an under-18 team. Today, stealing the trophy from the convent’s cabinet is the only option to seize it after 12 long years.
“Winning for 12 years is amazing and everyone starts to talk about how dominant we are as a team, but not many realise the struggle to get to this position. We did not have a proper netball court up until 2018. We have been winning with minimum resources. The court we had is full of dust during the dry season and becomes muddy during the rainy season. We used to remove water and mud and then play games.
When other schools travelled to matches in their school buses, we hired lorries to travel to the games. When each child of established schools had one ice bucket each, we used to have only one for the entire team. But despite all those challenges, we have been winning the overall championship for years. Sadly, I have heard many raising questions about why one school wins every year. I can proudly say it was due to the hard work of my girls. Sister Sriyani deserves most of the credit for taking steps to improve netball. My husband Ananda Wannitilake has been my strength.He is overlooking the fitness of my girls from 2004, and the support I have received from the parents has been truly inspiring,” said Amalka, taking her memory back to 2003.
The year 2010 was special. Netball at the Convent was at its peak, the girls improved as they grew older and became stronger, and Amalka kept on nurturing the under-12’s and 14’s to be as strong as the seniors. In 2010, they won the championship in all age groups (under-12, 14, 16 and 18) and won the overall championship again. This was repeated once again in 2012. 2010 was also special since their under-12 ‘A’ team won the championship and their ‘B’ team won 3rd place. In 2011, the under-12 final was played between the ‘A’ and ‘B’ teams, proving that even their ‘B’ team was stronger than the other major schools. The girls simply dominated the game. In 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2015 and 2019 all their teams played in the finals of all age groups. What more evidence does one need to show that school netball belongs to the girls from Kurunegala.
“I can remember in 2008 when we were awarded the overall championship, Bandula Egodage of Milo stated that Milo aims not only to produce great netball players but valuable netball coaches to the island too. I gained fame in 2008. Sport is an important element in my life. Sport makes you a near perfect human being. Adjusting to various situations is one great quality I have learned through sports, which has helped me in this current pandemic situation,” shared Amalka, thanking Milo for their immense service.
Amalka's family is very active in sports, dominating two ball games. Her husband was a national volleyball player for ten years and was the captain from 1981 to 1990. He is now a teaching instructor attached to the Wayamba Educational Zone. He has travelled the world and learned so much about volleyball. He has also coached the Mawathagama Casualineteam that won many championships.
Daughter Dulangi rose up the ranks from under-12. She was part of the 2008 team that first won the championship. She has also been awarded the best player of the tournament in the U-12, 16 and 18 Milo competitions. She then represented the National U-19 team which won the Asian Youth Netball Championship in year 2015. Even though her mother could not play for the national team, Dulangi fulfilled her mother’s dream in 2018. When Sri Lanka won the Asian Netball Championship in 2018, Dulangi was a part of the team, and was also a part of the team that played in the 2019 Netball World Cup.
Now 26, Dulangi was selected to do sports science management at the Sabaragamuwa University, but since national duties came in-between, it interrupted her higher studies. She is now employed at Hatton National Bank.
From 2004, the school has won 62 netball championships in all under Amalka’s coaching. She has also helped the girls to win 29 runners-up trophies and seven 2nd runners-up trophies. In Milo Schools Netball Championships, her coaching has guided them to win 38 championships, seven runners-up places and five 3rd places. She was rewarded for her hard work in 2016 when she was selected the ‘PTI Teacher of the Year’ at the Sirasa Platinum Awards. Amalka was appointed coach of the Under-16 team that eventually became champions at the inaugural South Asian under-16 Netball Championship in 2019. This was after rendering services as the assistant coach in the Junior Netball World Cup held in Botswana in 2017.
“2019 was a very successful year for us. We played in the finals of all age groups in the MILO Netball Championships winning two championships; played in three finals and won two in the national schools; became champions at the Youth Games and the Junior Nations; and in the senior nationals, we competed with national level players and won 3rd place. We were in great form and wanted to carry on that momentum to 2020 to win the senior nationals, but unfortunately due to the pandemic we haven’t played any netball,” Amalka reflected.
Engaging in sports is not possible because of the pandemic, but staying active and maintaining fitness is one important element for any athlete. Amalka has been sharing fitness videos on whatsapp with the girls and giving them instructions on what needs to be done. “I shared a schedule with the girls and asked them to follow it. They were able to go to a ground with less crowd to practice. By the time the second wave of COVID came we were ready with our schedules and material on how the training should be carried out,” said Amalka.
Amalka stated that the girls who played Netball throughout their school term had got into State universities, and that engaging in sports will not hinder a child’s education. She went on to say that the parents should support their children if they wish to engage in sports and they should know how to strike a balance between sports and studies. “I received great strength from my parents when I was a child, and even after I became a teacher. I just receive a salary for my teaching and have to work my agreed hours, but due to the love I have for this game I have dedicated all my life to it. I leave home around 6.00 a.m. and come home late at night after coaching. My parents motivate me and the parents of all my kids have been giving me great strength and courage motivating me to achieve more. They have been providing great strength to their children to engage in netball.”
Finally, Amalka stated that they have written to the new Sports Minister the need for a gym. According to her, they do not have a proper ground; the old 26-seater bus which they have is not comfortable enough for all the four teams to travel to matches,and they lack funds to purchase proper equipment.