With medals aplenty but sans shoes, this septuagenarian aims for the Olympics

72-year-old S. Akilathirunayagi from Mullaitivu has kept up with her passion for running, through all life’s hurdles. In Colombo this week for a felicitation ceremony, she talked to Kumudini Hettiarachchi

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All smiles: A proud Akila surrounded by her many medals. Pic by Eshan Fernando

Barefoot running star, 72-year-old S. Akilathirunayagi, has a dream – to take part in the venerated Olympic Games.

This is a dream that she may not be able to achieve on her own, though over the years she has under her own steam shown her prowess on the track without any training.

Akila from Mulliyawalai about six kilometres from Mullaitivu town, was in Colombo this week for a felicitation by the Saiva Mangaiyar Kalagam on Friday. The Kalagam had invited multi-cultural groups to participate in this felicitation, signifying the diversity of Sri Lanka which enriches the country immensely.

Akila has made Sri Lanka proud by winning two gold and two bronze medals at the 22nd Asia Masters Athletics Championships 2023, from November 8-12, in New Clark City, Capas, Tarlac in the Philippines, while paying her own way there and back.

While she sports her most-recent medals by wearing them around her neck – gold for the 1,500-metre and 5,000m track events and bronze for the 800m running and 5km walking events, we are in for a surprise.

“I have lots of medals,” smiles Akila with much humility as a friend brings a black travelling bag, out of which come medals and medals, gold, silver and bronze!

Not only in Sri Lanka has she won numerous medals but also in Thailand in 2009; in Singapore in 2015 and 2016; and in Japan in 2017, to name a few. She has also set new records in Sri Lanka.

She explains that even as a little girl attending Mulliyawalai’s Vidyananda College she was good at kreedawata (sports).

Akila the barefoot runner: At the Asia Masters Athletics Championship in the Philippines

Her life has not been without tragedy and loss. Her father had died when she was about 11 years old and her mother had toiled as the sole breadwinner.

After completion of the Advanced Level examination, Akila had joined the Department of Prisons when she was 21 years old and served in Mullaitivu, Jaffna, Anuradhapura, finally retiring after a stint in Vavuniya. During her long service of 36 years, she had bagged many trophies for her sports, becoming the overall Champion at the All-Island Prison Sports Competition in 1999.

In her personal life too, she had experienced loss when her husband had died young, leaving her a widow with two small children – daughter Yashintha now 43 years, living in the United Kingdom and son Theepan now 42, living in Canada. “I am a grandmother of three,” she laughs.

When Akila is not on the track taking part in races, back home in Mulliyawalai she rises early each day, worships at the shrine and attends to all the household chores as well as tending to land cultivated with paddy and ulundu. She also manufactures coconut oil as she has some land under coconut cultivation.

Her eyes light up as she talks of the family’s Vairavar Kovil that generations before her have supported and she is doing now.

Back to sports, she says her secret to winning so many races is being active throughout her life. Cycling has been routine and in addition to running she had also taken part in discus throwing, shot put and netball. This is what she advises adults and children to do, to ward off disease as well as bring to the fore any latent talents.

As Akila sets her sights on the Olympic Games, scheduled for July-August next year in France, she is very grateful for all the support she has received from the Department of Prisons which has been by her side throughout her journey to fame through sports.

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