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Darsha hangs her spikes after 17 years

RETIREMENT: Three-time Asian Games gold medallist Damayanthi Darsha has finally decided to hang her spikes, ending a proud 17-year career as one of the most successful athletes ever produced by Sri Lanka.

In an exclusive interview with the 'Daily News' yesterday, the 32-year-old veteran sprint queen said time has come for her to say good bye to competitive athletics.

"Every good thing should come to an end. I have enjoyed my athletics for nearly two decades and time has now come for me to call it a day," an emotional Darsha said.

Darsha is the only Sri Lankan to win three Asian Games gold medals. In three successive Asian Games from 1994 to 2002, Darsha bagged two gold medals and a bronze. She made a dream Asian Games debut winning the women's 200m bronze at Hiroshima 1994. The 1998 Asian Games in Bangkok saw the peak of her career when she completed a dream sprint double, wining both the women's 200m and 400m gold medals.

In Busan 2002, Darsha retained her 400m title, wining the gold in her pet event. Incidentally, the writer had the fortune of witnessing her at all three Asian Games she took part, though a leg injury forced her to skip the last Asian Games in Doha 2006.

Asked whether she is satisfied with what she has achieved as an athlete, she replied positively. "Yes, I am happy with what I have gained. The only medal I missed was at the Olympics. Unfortunately, I narrowly missed that in Sydney 2000. Nevertheless, I feel proud of what I have achieved," she said.

However, Darsha was somewhat disappointed over the consistent leg injury which kept her out during her final few years. "I was looking forward to last year's Asian Games but my injury did not permit that," she continued.

If not for her injury, Darsha would have well completed her fifth medal in her fourth successive Asian Games. Yet, she remains the most successful Sri Lankan athlete ever in Asian Games history.

Darsha, who is employed at Unichella (which comes under MAS Intimates) as a Human Resources Executive, said she has no immediate plans to pursue in the athletic area.

But she hinted her desire to serve Sri Lanka track and field as a coach. "But first, I will have to gain professional qualifications as a coach. I just don't want to take up coaching for the sake of doing it. If I return to serve the sport, then that would be as a qualified coach," she said.

However, Darsha ruled out the possibility of entering athletic administration. "I don't think that I would seek office at the AASL. It's not the right time for me and right now, I don't have any intension of contesting for a post at the athletic governing body," the 'Ampara Express' said. Above all, Darsha, who married last year, dreams of becoming a mother.

Born on February 13, 1975 in Panadura, Kohobala Vithanage Damayanthi Darsha is the eldest in a family of three and had her early education at Bandaranayake Balika MV, Ampara before she came to St.John's College, Panadura by Grade 5.

Prior to joining the Ladies College from the G.C.E. (O/L) stage, she had a three-year stint at Panadura Balika, where she was guided by Ms. Sanga Jayasekera.

Her performance at a Western Province meet in 1988/89 at Sugathadasa Stadium gave her the biggest break in her career. Former Sri Lanka Asian Games gold medallist Sunil Gunawardena who saw the young girl in action in winning the 200m there, identified the potential in this young rural lass.

Ever since, Gunawardena has been her coach and mentor. "He has been a tower of strength for me in the good times and the bad," she said. It was Gunawardena who guided Darsha to give Sri Lanka an Asian Games gold medal after 24 years in 1998.

Incidentally, that was after Gunawardena (men's 4 x 400m relay) and W. Wimaladasa's feats in Tehran 1974.

"He sharpened my skills and made a big impact. It was he who showed me the way to sail through the good times and the bad and earn so many victories in my career. I am really grateful to him," she said.

It was Gunawardena who found a break for Darsha at Ladies College. Darsha was just 16 years when she won the first of her eight South Asian Games gold medals 1991 - women's 100m gold, to be crowned the fastest woman in South Asia.

She was simply unbeatable until the late 90s where she switched on to 400m from her usual 100m and 200m events. Yet, she proved her decision right winning back to back medals in her new events at 1998 and 2002 Asian Games.

"That was a good move. My coach understood my potential in 400m at that stage and strategically geared me for that. He was proved right at the end," she continued. She also won the women's 400m gold at 1999 Asian Championships in Fukuoka.

When questioned about her impressions on present athletic standards, Darsha was feeling somewhat disappointed. "I feel Sri Lanka athletics today has come back to the era when I started my athletics career 17 years back. Of course there was a golden era from 1994 to 1998, but once gain, we have gone back to the old era. I feel sad about it," she explained.

But Darsha said that should not disappoint young ones taking to the sport. "Don't look for opportunities. If the young athletes are talented enough and prove it through impressive performances, there is always room for them to blossom. In the early part of my career, we too did not have too many opportunities but we let out performance to do the talking. At the end, we were rewarded," was Darsha's message to budding athletes.

Interestingly, Darsha holds most key international records, despite a late challenge in her career by compatriot Susanthika Jayasinghe. Asian Games records for women's 200 and 400m, South Asian Games records for women's 100m, 200m and 400m, Asian Championship record for 200m and 400m, Asian Junior championship record for 100m and Sri Lanka women's 400m record - all are under Darsha's belt.

Darsha, who competed in her last international meet at the Commonwealth Games last year, thanked CEO of MAS Holdings Dian Gomes for his continued support.

Darsha's retirement will be a big loss and it will be hard to find a highly talented athlete of her calibre to fill the void. She is due to hold a news conference at Sugathadasa Stadium hotel tomorrow to officially announce her retirement.

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