Shehan Ambepitiya – athlete who set CYG ablaze with 3 Golds
BY VIMUKTHI ADITHYA
When an 18-year-old ran his heart out at the 2008 Commonwealth Youth Games to clinch three Gold medals, the teenager was considered as the next big thing in Sri Lanka athletics. Prior to this the young boy ran in the 2007 World Youth Championships held in Czech Republic and advanced to the quarter-finals with a then personal best of 10.87s in the 100m heats, but it was in Pune, India that he showcased his true talents and potential. The boy is none other than Shehan Sandaruwan Ambepitiya. He made sure to make the three years 2008, 2009 and 2010 his own, winning local and international championships one after the other, and enjoyed establishing records. In 2008, Ambepitiya decided to make the Shree Shiv Chhatrapati Sports Complex in Pune his home.
It was 14 October 2008 when Shehan ran the 100m finals and won it with a new Games record. His timing read 10.43s, comfortably ahead of 2nd placed Suwaibou Sanneh of Gambia who finished in 10.51s. Shehan came first in his heats (10.66s) and first in the semi-final (10.48s). His timing kept improving with each run. The Commonwealth Youth Games record for the 100m was held by Shehan until it was broken in 2015 by Tlotliso Leotlela of South Africa (10.20s). The following day (15th), he was a member of the 4x100 relay team that clinched the Gold medal (Ranil Jayawardena, Chamara Silva and Keith De Mel being the other members).
The four teenagers ran the race in 40.85s, which not only won them the Gold, but helped to establish the Commonwealth Youth Games record for the event too, which still remains unbroken since then. On the same day, Shehan ran a very thrilling 200m final beating Australian Ray Williams and Indian Amiya Kumar. His timing was 21.27s while Williams finished with 21.30s. It was the same story as in the 100m, Shehan came first in his heat and the semi-finals, and his timing kept on improving with each race. That was Shehan Ambepitiya, the teenager who was crowned as the fastest youth in the Commonwealth region.
The man, to date, is the only Sri Lankan to win three Golds at the Youth Commonwealth Games. Things were looking bright for Sri Lankan athletics. Born on 17 January 1990 in Colombo, he is the youngest child of Jayadasa and Sriyani Ambepitiya, Shehan and little brother to Nirasha. He first attended President’s College Kotte where his main focus was only centered on books. Shehan was a very studious but shy kid, who did not want to get involved in any extracurricular activities. He started athletics at the age of 13 after his teachers persuaded him to go and participate in the selection trials for the House meet.
Shehan found immediate success and then went on to run the 100m at the John Tarbet and win it with a new record in his age category (Under-15). His most significant achievement, which was the turning point in his athletic career, occurred in 2006 at the AllIsland School Games. He ran the 100m in 11.04s to clinch the Gold medal in the under-17 category and established a new record, which to date remains unbroken. In 2007, he was spotted by legendary coach and Olympian Sunil Gunawardena, and the rest is history. He changed schools, his coach (Nalin Witharana to Sunil Gunawardena), and was transformed into a champion athlete. “Many think that the culture at an International School is very different to local schools, but this was not the case at Gateway College.
I was well received by all the teachers and students; everyone helped me to balance my sports and studies. Huge credit should go to the late R.I.T Alles. It was sir who always told me and pushed me to do my studies together with my sports. He paved the way for me to engage in my higher studies and created a good path for me which I followed. After attending Gateway, I participated in the ISAC (International Schools Athletic Meet) in 2007, 2008, 2009 and won all the events, while establishing records in the 100m, 200m and 400m. Attending Gateway without a doubt made me a better athlete,” reminisced Shehan.
When Shehan participated at the 2007 World Youth Athletic Championships he was ranked the 23rd fastest youth runner in the world. He then participated at the inaugural South Asian Junior Athletic Championships held in 2007 November and clinched three Gold medals - 100m, 200m, and 4x100m - which made him the fastest junior athlete in the South Asian region. He then booked his flight to Jakarta in 2008 to participate in the Asian Junior Athletic championships and won a Silver medal in the 100m event with a timing of 10.55s. After that it was the triple Gold medals at the Commonwealth Youth Athletic Championships in 2008. The same year he participated at the World Junior Championships (in Poland) and came 7th in the 100m with a timing of 10.71s.
The athlete who came in 4th was Jamaican superstar and Olympic medalist Yohan Blake. Shehan’s impressive performance helped him to be crowned as the most outstanding sportsman at the Milo Colours Awards ceremony, not just once but thrice - in 2007, 2008 and 2009 - which also made him the one and only athlete to win the most outstanding sportsman award three times. Junior level was over and the next was the senior category. At the 2010 South Asian Games Shehan won two Golds (100m; 4x100m relay), and a Silver (200m). Ambepitiya then participated at the 2010 Commonwealth Games.
He recorded his personal best timing of 10.31s in his heats and advanced to the semifinals. His target was the 2012 Olympics as the Olympic qualifying time was 10.28s. His impressive performance saw him receiving a scholarship from International Olympic Committee (IOC) to travel to Jamaica and train under Glean Mills, who was also the trainer of the world fastest man Usain Bolt and world champion Yohan Blake. Well, a Lankan getting an opportunity to attend a training camp of that magnitude could be considered as ‘wow’, but Shehan’s views were different. “I was so close to the Olympic qualifying time (10:28s); I just needed three milliseconds to achieve it.
Well, training with the likes of Usain Bolt and other champion runners did help me to gain a lot of experience. Simply, I learnt how to live with the game, but if you ask whether it helped my athletic career, my answer would be a big ‘NO’. Training with runners who ran under 10 seconds was not easy and it was difficult to keep up with them. I also did not receive much attention from my trainer. The training methods were very different to what I used to do here; the Jamaican runners run mainly on strength, but it was not the case for us. I had issues in coping up with the weights and the physical training, where my body could not absorb them.
After training for two years, our target was to achieve the Olympic qualifying time, but it only put me down. I came back to Sri Lanka with an injury and my Olympic dream was over. If I had trained here with Sunil Sir, I would have obtained better results. I also believe that rather than sending an athlete to train in other countries, it is better if we can ask our coaches to participate in foreign training camps and for them to come back here and train us or to bring down foreign coaches here.” Shehan opened up about his time training with the fastest men in the world. He came back with an injury, did not meet the Olympic qualifying standards, and did not engage in the sport for two years. When he came back to the track in 2014 his main focus was on forming a strong relay team.
The four runners - Himasaha Eshan, Vinoj de Silva, Mohamed Ashraf and Shehan - broke the 4x100m relay national record that existed for over 15 years. The same team then renewed it at the 2018 Commonwealth Games with a timing of 39.08s and finished 6th in the final. Shehan wanted to concentrate more on a professional career, so, he decided to hang his spikes in 2019, a decision he wanted to take some time ago but decided to stick around to help build the relay team as he was the captain.
Proving to everyone that a professional sports personality can balance sports and studies, he obtained a BBA in Marketing (2015) from Northwood University (USA) and an MBA (2017) from University of West London (UK). One important thing that the late Mr. Alles taught him was that it does not matter even if you have an Olympic medal without sound education, so Shehan decided to plan out his life and have something for himself when his sports career came to an end.
Well, it is not easy to just be a professional athlete in Sri Lanka. “Engaging in sports added so much value to me as a person. It is because of my involvement in sports that I became more disciplined, gained leadership qualities, learnt to absorb and cope with defeat, and get back on my feet after failure. Even though athletes are not treated professionally in Sri Lanka, I learned how to act as a professional. What sports add to the life of a person is immense and invaluable,” added Shehan, on how sports added value to his life. Shehan did not have a specific role model per se, but learnt from society and became more disciplined and carved out his own path.
Shehan considered himself a very lazy child and it was his parents who motivated him to engage in sports and other activities. “I was a very quiet and lazy kid, but it was my parents who helped me to engage in my athletic career. They never forced me to do anything I didn’t want to, gave me all the freedom I needed and it was very comfortable for me to engage in what I love. This helped me to balance my studies and sports in a timely and effective manner. My advice to parents is not to force their kids to involve in anything that they do not like or find uncomfortable; never push them but allow them to choose the path they love and prefer.
What I have to say to the kids is that they should make sure to balance sports and studies well. It is in their hands to build up their career and life. Always understand that there is an expiry date for an athlete and plan on building up a life and a professional career after that.” Shehan passed on some valuable advice.
From 2017, Shehan who was the fastest junior athlete in South Asia, second fastest junior athlete in Asia, seventh fastest junior athlete in the World, fastest in South Asia, sixth fastest in Asia, is now working at TV Derana in the Sales and Marketing Department. He is also engaged with the National Olympic Committee and a member of the High-Performance Committee at the Ministry of Sports. Shehan finally wanted to thank his coach Sunil Gunawardena and Thushara Perera, the Group Director, Sales and Marketing and the top management of TV Derana, the workplace that has helped him so much.