• Last Update 2024-06-13 18:08:00

The teenage Sri Lankan wrestling sensation who’s given up everything to chase her dreams

Sport

The stakes were high for Sri Lankan wrestler Nethmi Ahinsa Fernando Poruthotage at the 2022 Commonwealth Games.

The teenager, from a small village in the country's north-western province, was up against Australia's Irene Symeonidis for the bronze medal in the 57-kilogram freestyle event.

As they were called to the ring, all Poruthotage could think of was the loans her family took out, and her coach's gold necklace he pawned to buy a pair of boots for her to make the trip to Birmingham.

"By then we had no other place to get more loans. It was do or die for us," Poruthotage told ABC Sport sitting outside the half-built training hall in her coach's front yard.

Earlier her sister had pawned her gold jewellery, and her friend-turned-wrestling partner's father had borrowed money to help her attend another competition.

To get to the UK, Poruthotage's coach had put himself nearly $2,000 in debt.

That determination paid off when Poruthotage won bronze, making history as Sri Lanka's youngest Commonwealth Games medallist at 18 years old.

After winning, she was overwhelmed with emotions.

"All the memories came back to me. How hard we trained, everything our coach did for us, the loans, and everyone at home. What can I say, I was very happy to win," she said.

And the win gave her much-needed financial support too —  a local television channel, TV Derana, presented Poruthotage with a new house near her parents' home, and provided her with a monthly allowance of around $240.

Poruthotage trains with a few village youths, including her coach's two sons.

They have grown closer to each other over the years, sharing food and even going to events, such as the funerals of those who helped them over the years, like a family.

Her coach, Suranga Kumara, scouted her in 2018 when he started training a group of young people in his village while staying home from his military job after injuring his leg.

"It was my friend, Chamodya Keshani, who introduced me to coach Suranga. I was overweight back then and wanted to reduce some weight," Poruthotage said, laughing.

Keshani, who is also a talented wrestler, was glad when her friend signed up.

"First, I thought it was like those WWE matches," Keshani said.

"People in my village asked us why we [girls] wanted to wrestle. We just say that it keeps us fit."

However, it took some convincing to get Poruthotage's parents on board, especially because of the perceived link to the WWE.

Coach Kumara spoke to Poruthotage's parents and said he would help her lose weight.

He also committed to taking responsibility for her safety while she trained under him.

"My parents couldn't even afford a pair of boots back then. My father is a mason, and my mother does not work," Poruthotage said.

keep fit.

So, they made do with vegetables and fruits they found in the village, like jack fruit and sweet potatoes, or vegetables villagers would donate from time to time.

On days the wrestlers didn't eat well, they would train less to retain strength.

Coach has big dreams for village training centre
Then there was the issue of finding a place to train.

"We trained on a mound of sawdust somewhere in the village, then we moved to the preaching hall of the village temple but had to leave because people complained that we were too loud," Poruthotage said.

"At one time we even trained on Chamodya's verandah."

The young trainees would carry donated mattresses outside when it was sunny and take them back in when it rained.

Finally, with some help, their coach started building a more permanent place in his front yard.

Today the half-built training hall is lined with plastic covers and aluminium roofing sheets.

Its interior is hung with large posters of coach Kumara and his team at local and international events, and one poster of Poruthotage and her coach, presented by villagers after she secured her bronze medal.

Poruthotage is also on a cash scholarship of $1,700 from the International Olympic Committee, which is shared amongst the group for food and travelling.

"[My athletes] are talented. They fight against wrestlers who are much older and win local events," Kumara said.

His dream is to continue building the training hall with separate changing rooms for men and women.

"I will bring it to an international standard," he said.

Targeting Olympic gold in Paris
As Poruthotage wrestled her opponent under the watchful eyes of her coach, her mother Shriyani Wasundara took us into their home, a humble abode near a paddy field.

Shriyani laughed as she remembered how she first protested when her daughter wanted to take up wrestling.

"I said it was not a sport for girls, but her father agreed when coach Suranga spoke to us. Now I couldn't be prouder of my daughter," she said.

Poruthotage's dreams and wrestling life are etched into the walls of her home with photographs, drawings, and writings.

"My last targat Olimpic Gold medal", is engraved on the walls next to "I love wrestling forever" written inside a heart.

Poruthotage is now training to compete at this year's Paris Olympics.

To qualify, she must first win at the 2024 Asian Championship or the Olympic Qualifier series.

"No-one from Sri Lanka has got onto a wrestling ring at the Olympic Games," she said.

"My dream is to be the first to represent my country."

Source - ABC News

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