A stereotyped sub continent region is not always the most welcoming place for women and girls to be the best in their game, let alone sports. Then you have someone in the caliber of Dhanusha Rajapakse, a highly decorated Taekwondo martial artist from the University of Moratuwa, who is the epitome of perseverance and discipline having painted her sporting career at the grass-root level. Instead of kicks and punches, we threw her some thought provoking questions on Women in Sport and this is what she had to say.
How were you first introduced to sports?
The first sport I was introduced to was Wushu when I was just 5 years old thanks to my father. Eventually it came to a point in 2016 where I had to take the most difficult decision I have ever made in my life and that is to give up the sport mainly due to reasons beyond my control. However, I didn’t want to let the sportswoman within me to die this young so I thought of starting Taekwondo in the university in response to a friendly invitation by Malith Anjana of the university Taekwondo team. I was introduced to him by one of my batchmates, Asanka Perera, a leading University level Volleyball player. I am very much grateful to these two individuals as much to my coaches for the journey I have come so far.
What made you stick with Taekwondo?
The main reason that made me stick with the sport is realizing the positive impact it had on my personality and self growth. I saw myself being outstanding and getting moulded into an all-rounder. I learnt many things that one could not possibly learn from books or lectures, not subject matter though but things that are very beneficial when it comes to living in a dynamic society, achieving career goals, dealing with people and winning in life. I developed self confidence and started to have faith in my strengths and not to be afraid of my weaknesses. I started taking the maximum benefit of every opportunity that came in my way and also to face all the threats and challenges without fearing about the final outcome. I learnt to set targets and stay focused without getting deviated. I learnt from mistakes and also learnt not to get demotivated from failures. I learnt how to turn all the demotivating factors into motivators. I learnt how to be a good team member and also to be a good team leader. I learnt and experienced team spirit, what it is like to help someone to win, what it was like to cheer and motivated someone to victory. Apart from all these, doing a sport helped me to stay focused or concentrate well when studying. Both the sports I have engaged in have taught me a lot of things that have made me feel proud about myself. Therefore I want to continue this until I am physically fit enough to do so.
Does your family have a sports background and how supportive have they been?
My father had practiced cricket when he was schooling and my mother had been a member of the netball team of her school. However my father had dreams of seeing his daughter engage in martial arts. Back then we didn’t have a vehicle on our own so he carried me to practices in his arms at places we had to walk even though I was a fully grown child, whose legs almost reached the ground when being carried. He did so to not make me feel tired before practices and did the same when coming back home.
I was deeply touched by his efforts so I always wanted to practice well, perform well and go for the biggest possible achievement in any tournament that I took part in because that’s the best way to give the maximum value to each and every drop of sweat my father had shed. My mother was also very supportive of me. I had this dream of representing Sri Lanka to make them happy, which is another reason why I started Taekwondo in the university as I was not able to participate in any International Wushu tournaments though I reached the national level from it. I am truly lucky to have them as my parents because they were so understanding and never doubted whether I would be able to manage both studies and the sport.
Describe some of your most prominent achievements.
The most prominent achievement I have had in terms of sports was obtaining a Silver medal at South Asian Games 2019 from women’s team Poomsae event. That experience and feeling I got after getting the medal was truly indescribable. I was able to secure the Gold medal from individual events at 4 consecutive all island school Wushu championships and similarly I was able to win the gold medal in individual events for four consecutive years at Inter University Taekwondo tournaments. I have won National level medals for individual demonstration events in both sports. I obtained school colours for Wushu,the best Wushu player at the school’s Colours Night 2012 and thereafter obtained University Colours for Taekwondo, while becoming the best Women’s Taekwondo player at the University Colours Night 2018. I obtained National School Colours (Milo colours) for Wushu in 2012 and 2013 and have been nominated for SLUSA colours for Taekwondo for 2018 and 2019. Moreover,I captained the school’s Wushu team in 2012 which emerged champions at the All Island Schools Wushu Championship that year and similarly I captained the university Women’s Taekwondo team which emerged champions at SLUG 2019. However, I would like to say that the biggest achievement I have had so far was being able to manage both studies and the sport well.
What sort of challenges did you face in your sports career? How did you overcome them?
The biggest challenge I faced was managing time to balance both studies and the sport. I found this more challenging as a university student than as a school student. University of Moratuwa is said to be a university with a high academic pressure. Therefore being a team player in such an environment is a big deal. But if you really have the will, even the impossible becomes possible.
I always think that this rare life we have got should not be spent in the same manner how everyone tries to spend it. We have to reach our full potential when we are young and strong enough to do so. For that we should not limit ourselves to one particular area. We have to build the ability to be multitasking. That’s the mindset I had and still have and that’s what helped me to balance everything.
I was in my final semester when I got selected to the SAG pool. I had to go for residential pool practices at Nawalapitiya prior to attending the games. I missed about six whole weeks of work at the university. So after the games I had limited time to do submit all the take home assignments that I missed, to sit for the in class tests that I couldn’t face, to do the final year project, to catch up with the lectures I couldn’t attend to and also to get ready for the final examination of my university life. It was a bit stressful but I was able to manage everything well by optimally using the time that was available and ended the final semester in style with an international level medal and a semester GPA of 3.97 excluding the results of one module that have not been released yet .
Were any of those challenges caused or impacted by the fact that you are a woman?
Gender is irrelevant when it comes to managing time. It totally depends on how well we plan and prioritize things. I travelled daily from home to the university. One challenge that I faced being a woman when doing sports was going back home after practices in the university that usually went till 10 p.m. or even late. We live in a country where it is not safe for a girl or a woman to walk alone in the streets after like 5 pm. My father came to pick me up after practices so sometimes I couldn’t make it to the sessions if he wasn’t free to come and pick me.
Do you think there is a reluctance among women and girls to join sports, specially at the university level? If yes, what do you think is the reason?
Yes, I see a reluctance in girls to engage in sports specially in universities. Those who have done sports in school usually continue the same sport or try something new in the university but only a limited number of girls start doing a sport. Some attend few practice sessions and then give up. The main reason for this is they being uncertain whether they would be able to balance academics with practices. They doubt whether spending time on a sport while doing a degree would cause them to lose results. This is a common misconception among not only girls but boys as well. In some other cases the girls are not allowed to take part in sports even though they are willing, by the ones who are close to them. Some parents don’t like much if their daughters engage in a sport fearing that they would lose focus and screw up studies or get injuries. Therefore it a really challenging for a captain of a women’s team in a university especially like ours, where the feminine percentage is low, to find members for the team, retain them, make them attend regular practices and lead them to a championship.
Is there anything that you think should be changed in university sports and how it operates to encourage more women to involve it sports?
The first thing that needs to be done is correcting all the misconceptions among the students as well as the parents about doing a sport along with studies. They have to be convinced that time spent on a sport is not a loss but an investment because a sport is the best way to create a person with a balanced personality, better concentration, increased mental capacity and healthy mentality. This could be done by having briefing sessions during orientation programmes or pre-academic season by past students (graduates, I mean) or even undergraduates who have excelled in both academics and sports and have reached greater heights in life. This could boost up some confidence and motivation in the new students to engage in a sport. Every new player will not be able to get into the university team in the first year and this is a demotivating factor. Therefore each and every sport team needs to have its own way of directing such players to participate in outside tournaments that are appropriate to their level and standard. This will make the players retain and try more to get into the university team in years to come.
Another thing that I would like to suggest is based on something that I had to experience. I had to give up the sport that I did for 16 years because it was not a university game and I couldn’t practice as before and maintain my performance. I was fortunate to go beyond the level I had reached from Wushu, from Taekwondo but most of the other players who used to perform with me in school meets gave up the sport when they got into universities. This would have not been so if Wushu was a sport included in Inter University games. Therefore I would like to suggest that relevant authorities need to pay their attention to make every possible school game available in universities as well so that the sport will not lose good players.
What is your message to female university students who aspire to join sports? Or to those who are reluctant to join sports?
In my point of view, a woman needs to be mentally stronger than a man because she is the one who will have to separate from her family and start living with a new family, with new people after marriage. She has to keep aside the life she spent with her own family and get accustomed to the new life. She has to deal with different people in the society once she starts her profession. She will be moving up in the career ladder and will have to hold leadership positions where even men would be working under her. She is the source that gives birth to new lives tolerating the most unbearable pain in the world. She has play multiple roles such as a beloved wife, a caring mother, a good daughter and a daughter in-law, a teacher, a mentor, a counselor, a treasurer, a friend, a sister while holding the responsibilities of her career life. She should be proactive, wise, multitasking, strong and responsible. One cannot certainly learn all these from books or tutorials but definitely from experience.
I say that there is no better platform than sports for a girl to collect all the experience needed to inculcate these qualities and shape her life better. A woman needs to be full of selfless love. In a tournament we cheer at top of our voices and encourage our teammates to do their best. We get nothing in person but the joy of victory of a person who worked so hard for it. Well I call that selfless love. Selfless love automatically roots in a player’s self with team spirit. If you genuinely put your effort in a sport, you will be rewarded in numerous ways. Balancing many things together totally depends on how we plan, prioritize things and manage time. If you succeed in doing this, you will definitely become a strong confident woman who is ready to take up any challenge in life.
We highly appreciate these wise sentiments and words of encouragement which will definitely motivate girls to be confident in taking up sport as part of their university life. Having said that, we at MoraSpirit would like to wish Dhanusha all the best in her future endeavors!