Deepthi and Semini Alwis – Mother/daughter duo with a unique world record in netball
By Vimukthi Adithya
Engaging in a sport while young and growing to live with it for over 40 years is a different kind of challenge, and you are bound to face many obstacles. A year after giving birth, if you are capable of returning to the field with the same energy, it then speaks volumes about the dedication of the athlete. Three years after giving birth, if you can become the captain of your national team and lead them into a World Cup, once again it shows the challenges the females engaged in professional sports successfully face.
Fitness and endurance would have altered after giving birth and you will have added responsibilities towards a growing child, but Deepthi Alwis became the Vice Captain of the Sri Lanka Netball team in 1993, just a year after giving birth to her first child.
She proved herself to be a better player post pregnancy, as three years later, in 1995, she was made the Captain of the Netball team that took part in the World Cup. Well, there is more to her legacy. The same person, after 20 years became the head coach of the national team, while her daughter became the captain of the team. She was able to build her profile while coaching and nurturing her daughter into a leader.
This indeed is a unique record as they became the first mother and daughter duo in the history of netball. It is indeed a beautiful story but not a fairytale, as it came with its own set of challenges and complications. Born in Anuradhapura on 4 September 1965 to H.L.D. Dharmadasa and U.H. Kusuma, Deepthi is the second child in a family of two boys and five girls.
Her older brother is Neil Priyantha, her four sisters are Shamali Priyanka, Milani Rasangika, Nilushi Sagarika, Roshini Lakmali and her younger brother is Shaman Nalaka. From grade one Deepthi attended Anuradhapura Convent which is now called Swarnapali Balika Maha Vidyalaya, and decided to remain loyal to her Alma Mater and rejected all invitations from other schools.
Deepthi was 13 when she first decided to take up the sport of netball. Her sports teacher back at school provided a ball to the kids and asked them to shoot, count their goals and report it to her. At the end it was Deepthi who was able to score the most goals.
After verifying it with the other kids, the physical training Instructor decided to enroll her in the school’s netball team. Her dedication was evident when she used to watch seniors practice and try to play a game or two with them till dark. Apart from mastering netball, Deepthi was also involved in athletics and claimed many victories at the sports meet. After she completed her exams, she could not stop thinking about Netball.
“After I finished my Advanced Level exams in 1987, I was just at home when one of my friends informed me that they were planning to get new players for the National Youth Services Council netball team and wanted me to apply. To be frank I did not have any high hopes, but one day I received a letter asking me to come for an interview to the National Youth Services Council in Maharagama.
Many activities were conducted to check our fitness and endurance and I knew I was doing well and capturing attention. I received a letter a couple days later asking me to join their training camp for two years. Thus began my serious netball career,” recalled Deepthi on how she started professional netball.
At the Youth Council she did not limit herself to netball, but also decided to showcase her skills in volleyball too and became an active member of both teams, but she later decided to concentrate only to netball. After their training at the NYSC was completed, many seniors received job opportunities and decided to move out, while Deepthi and a few girls were left. At that time a match had been arranged between the Hema Premadasa netball team and NYSC team. Deepthi was made the captain of the team and performed exceptionally well.
Performing well in that match while leading the girls and providing them coaching when required helped her grab the attention of everyone. Afterwards, she was able to drive the team to win the Western Province tournaments, and even at the young age of 20 she was leading the girls. She then entered the Colombo Municipal Council Netball team in 1985 and after a year, in 1986, she joined the Sri Lanka Ports Authority team. Her friend convinced her and gave her confidence to get involved with the strong Ports Authority team. Soon the doors to the national team were opened and she traveled to Scotland with the team to take part in the 7th Netball World Cup held in 1987.
She was not included in the starting team but an injury to the centre saw her being selected to play. She was the youngest player of the 1987 Sri Lankan World Cup squad, but made an impact immediately. In 1988 she travelled to Singapore with the Ports Authority team to play in a club tournament and the team was victorious. “I then represented Sri Lanka at the 1989 Asian Championship where we became the champions; then travelled to Australia to take part in the 1991 World Cup. I was the vice- captain in the 1993 Asian Championship where we were able to clinch 3rd place.
Circumstances also meant that I had to marry early, and by 1986 at the age of 21, I was a married woman with added responsibilities, delivering my services to the national team. In 1992 I gave birth to my daughter Semini, but the next year I was made the vice-captain of the team.
After many sacrifices, dedication and with a kid of three years, in 1995 I was able to become the Captain of the team that travelled for the World Cup to England. In the consolation round we won three matches - Bermuda, Republic of Ireland and Scotland - and ended at the 19th position out of 27 teams.
In the same year we participated in the Asian Championship and became the champions. After 1997, I decided to hang my playing shoes and concentrated on becoming a coach.” Deepthi touched on a few important memories of her career. After the ‘Deepthi the player’ episode was over, she decided to start her own coaching school in Gampaha called Deepthi Sports Club.
Through her sports club she was able to produce many brilliant players for the national team. Together with managing her own club while playing for Ports Authority, she decided to start a professional coaching career. At the same time, she was engaged in coaching a few schools too. One of the prized achievements of her early coaching career was when she helped the Vishaka Girls to clinch a championship at the under14 Milo netball championship after 25 years, while also helping two under-12 teams to win the championship and runners-up trophy.
Soon she was roped in for national service. She was made the assistant coach of the Junior national team in the years 2004, 2006, and 2008, and was coaching the development team in 2007. While she was coaching, her daughter who was following in her footsteps also got selected for the junior team at the age of 13. In 2010 due to some administration issues, Deepthi was not included in the national coaching setup.
She was disheartened but was engaged in the sport with her girls at the Deepthi Sports club, and in one of the tournaments her girls were able to beat a team from Navy Sports Club and this made the officials request Deepthi to take on the job of coaching the Navy team. She obliged; improved the standards of the girls and helped six of her Navy players to be selected to the national team.
“In 2011, I became the assistant coach of the national team. In 2012, my daughter Semini was included in the senior team where I was the assistant coach. She also captained the Junior team in 2013 while playing for the national team.
In 2014, I was made the head coach of the national team, but unfortunately, I was dropped from the team and my coaching position was terminated without my knowledge. Even though I was the one who coached the girls, it was another coach who travelled with the girls on tours. I faced many challenges and had a hard time, but I never gave up.
In 2015, I was made the head coach of the 2015 World Cup team while my daughter Semini was named the captain of the team. This was a world record where the Mother was the Coach and Daughter was the captain of the World Cup team.”
Deepthi touched on her memories and challenges as a coach. Even though she was the coach for the 2015 World Cup, and her daughter was the Captain, the administrators decided to drop her daughter from the 2016 Asian Championship team because her mother Deepthi was the coach. She was surprised and de-motivated by this act, as not only her daughter but another top player of hers was dropped from the team and they were made as standby players.
In the 2016 Asian Championship, Sri Lanka became the runners up and Deepthi believes that if her daughter and the other player were included in the team, they would have had a good chance of clinching the trophy. This was the last of her involvement with coaching the national netball team.
“Back in school when I was a kid, I was someone who did not have a strong personality, but my involvement in sports shaped me into the woman I am. The challenges I faced made me a strong person who was able to absorb pressure, accept challenges and overcome it. I prided myself on my team spirit. My parents never influenced me or put up any restrictions to dictate my choices; they knew my love was towards sports and supported me.
My advice to parents is to identify what the kids love and help them in their choice. Kids should be motivated to achieve their end goals.” Deepthi finally shared the values sports added to her personality, the support from her parents and her advice to parents and kids. Currently she is working at the Ports Authority as a super management assistant in the Welfare Division while also coaching and being the netball secretary of the team.
She is currently the President of the Nationalised Services Netball Association and the President of the Gampaha District Netball Association. Her husband, Jagath Alwis, is currently working as a Commanding Officer in Ratnapura at the National Cadet Corps. Finally, she wanted to thank the Sri Lanka Ports Authority for helping her from the 1980’s, and all national coaches and people who have helped her reach this lev