27 April 2014

Team of the Year 2014: Wheels for Wheels Foundation

They polished the pearl with every push on the pedal

There’s the cricket team that secured ICC silver after many years, winning the T-20 World Cup.  There’s the chess team that won a Gold at the Chess Olympiad in Tromso, Norway, fighting well above its weight.  But there are teams and teams, those that compete against opponents and those that compete for their fellow creatures.  The team of cyclists who went around the pearl that is Sri Lanka to raise money for children suffering from Cerebral Palsy is special.  ‘The Nation’ picks these courageous and inspiring citizens as ‘The Team of the Year 2014’.

Ajith Fernando knew that he would turn 50 within a few months.  He wanted to do something different.  He thought of raising money for a charity.

Sarinda Unamboowe was thinking about cycling around the country.  Randomly. He was not a biker.  He had never cycled more than 80 km. 

Dr Gopi Kitnasamy, head of the Physiotherapy Department of Durdans Hospital is also the Founder Director of Cerebral Palsy Lanka Foundation.  He was looking to raise funds.  He wanted to raise enough money to purchase 1000 wheelchairs especially designed for children suffering from Cerebral Palsy; children from rural areas and poor families. 

Ranil De Silva of Leo Burnett wanted to help Dr Gopi Kitnasamy.  There was no plan as such.  Ranil had met Ajith.  Ajith had spoken about his ‘birthday wish’.  Ranil spoke of Cerebral Palsy.  Sarinda, Ajith’s classmate at Royal and a longtime friend, had called Ajith randomly.  He knew that Ajith was a serious cyclist.  Fit as a fiddle.  Ajith did not know Dr Gopi’s connection in all this.  Ajith met Dr. Gopi.  Randomly. 
The two discovered that each was part of the same story.  That was the ‘introduction’ to what would become an epic.  That epic was called ‘Around the Pearl,’ the name being given by Yasas Hewage.  Yasas also came up with another elegant tag, ‘Wheels for wheels’. 

Word got around.  Leo Burnett designed a communications campaign around the lines provided by Yasas.  There were some sponsors, mostly friends who didn’t do it for the publicity.  There was Janashakthi and Orient Finance.  Ajith and Sarinda mentioned ‘Olu Water’ who provided 800 bottles of which 788 were consumed.  They insisted, ‘there was no commercial interest’. 

Serious cyclists said ‘yes, let’s do it’.  Amateurs like Sarinda and Charlene Thuring were game.  Charlene, incidentally, was the only female in the team of riders.  The planning, apparently, had been weak but that didn’t matter.  Each of the dozen who decided to cycle some 1350 km in just 10 days funded themselves.  They found places to stay and these were the de-facto daily destinations. 

It was for a good cause.  ‘There is no “getting-better” for those who have this disease, but their lives could be made more comfortable if they had wheelchairs; here was an opportunity to make a significant improvement in their lives instantly,’ Sarinda said.  And so they decided to ride. They decided that riding would help create more awareness of ailment and need. They decided that it might generate some funds.  By the time they finished, those who were moved by their effort and all the sacrifices therein, moved themselves. They received money or pledges enough to obtain 700 wheelchairs. 

The experienced cyclists may have had some idea of the challenges ahead, the others may have wondered if their bodies would hold up.  It was unfamiliar territory in a more practical sense too.  No one had done it before.  Indeed, no one could do it before.  As Peter Bluck, another professional cyclist put it, ‘This is the result of the war ending’. 

Ajith and Sarinda concurred.  They said that they went through places whose names were associated only with the three decades long war. They were not places that had place-names but war-place-names.  These riders, on this occasion, did not have to contend with security checks, warring groups or multibarrel fire.  There were no ‘uncleared areas’ except those in mind and body, pertaining naturally to endurance and will.  They were duly cleared and as always through great effort and at great cost. 

It all happened from April 10-20, 2014.  Twelve cyclists took off from Colombo. They would head South and take that route around the coast through the Southern, Eastern, Northern and North-Western Provinces and end in the West.  They had one mechanic accompanying them.  The support-team could be called rag-tag, but they proved to be a critical cog in the entire exercise.  They encouraged, attended to the wounds, aches and pains the riders picked up along the way, and sorted out logistics.  The riders didn’t have to worry about such things. They had, after all, a lot more to worry about, all of them.  That ‘all’ is as follows: Ajith Fernando, Yasas Hewage, Jehan Bastian, Suren Abeysuriya, Dushmantha Jayasinghe, Anudatte Dias, Peter Bluck, Gihan Hemachandre, Ravi Weerapperuma, Sarinda Unamboowe, Charlene Thuring, and the support crew, Ajani Hewage, the Leo Burnett and ARC teams.

They all discovered that the world looks and feels different when you are on a bike (as opposed to being in a car).  ‘The road is not flat by any means,’ Sarinda said.  ‘When people say “there’s a flat stretch” they mean that it’s smooth for a car.  In the case of a bike every pebble is a huge bump.  The notion of ‘flat’ is warped!’

Quitting mentally had not been an issue, but they could not tell if their bodies would hold.  They were all sun-burnt. Badly.  Some had blisters. Some were plagued by cramps.  One picked up a pinched nerve in the neck and carried it all around the island.  Ajith said that the body adjusts, gets better, over time.  Sarinda said that Day 2 was the worst. That was when he had come close to quitting.  He pulled through. Everyone did.  Ajith and Yasas Hewage, who led the pack, as well as the more experienced cyclists had helped.  One of them would fall back to encourage those who were finding the going difficult. 

‘Ajith and Yasas managed it very well.  They assessed all factors including the physical conditions of each and every member of the team. They would decided when to take a break and how to deal with particular situations,’  Sarinda recalled. 

This, folks, was the hottest time of the year. April.  The sun is right above Sri Lanka at this time.   They had an explanation.  It had to be ‘holiday time’ because this was when a decent number of people could take off enough time from work.  ‘The sun builds character,’ someone had said and that line apparently was repeated frequently, with less and less enthusiasm and more and more irony bordering on bitterness. 

Sarinda writes with humor about it now in his blog www.thebonemarrowdiaries.blogspot.com: Mother nature was a heartless old cow. Praying, begging, pleading, demanding doesn't work with her. I did all of the above asking her for one cloud, just one single cloud, but instead of obliging the only cloud the cranky old bag sent stayed over head for about thirty seconds and then scooted across the road into the uncleared mine fields we were riding through.’

They could not ride at night.  Ajith said that it would have been easy had they ridden at night, but that would defeat the purpose of creating awareness: ‘we needed visibility.’ 

Dr Gopi didn’t accompany them.  He followed them, though, as did hundreds and thousands of others, who were treated to blogposts, facebook status messages and tweets about where they were, what they felt, how they suffered and how they retained their focus and sense of humor. 
They've done it.  Have we done our part?  

‘It is a truly great thing they have done for those who suffer from Cerebral Palsy. Few would do anything like what they did.  They sacrificed so much.  They were away from their families. They sacrificed their holidays.’  That’s how he expressed his gratitude. 

The ‘team’ appreciated all the support it got.  They were all full of praise for the man who made sure that breakdowns would not derail the project. M.D. Sajith Aruna Kumara.  Sajith was the official mechanic.  He is more than a mechanic though.  He rode with the team.  All the way ‘around the pearl’.  Sajith, unlike any of the riders, is a professional cyclist in that he has competed in cycling events and bagging quite a few titles.  
‘It was an amazing experience for me.  We covered the most difficult terrains.  We were welcomed by everyone we met. There were Sinhala and Tamil people who greeted us warmly, spoke with us, and offered refreshments.  The security forces, especially the Navy, were extremely helpful.  The team was wonderful.  They all had good bikes. I just had my “standard” machine, but I knew I could keep up.  In fact I was able to help some of the riders who accepted with humility whatever advice I had to give.’

It’s still not over though.  Not for any of them. Dr Gopi estimates there to be around 40,000 people suffering from Cerebral Palsy.  This project reaches out only to a fraction.  He encourages people to contact the Foundation for more information.  The Cerebral Palsy Lanka Foundation is located at No 7, Capt Kelum Rajapakse Mawatha, Wattala.  You could also write to him at gopi291975@yahoo.com or call him on 0777-554328 or 0714-342247.  The Foundation’s website, www.cplanka.org also contains relevant information. 
It's our turn to ride now, isn't it?

It is something they can all look back at and be proud, but they all recognize that the harder work happens now, obviously. Sarinda, who was a live wire in that other amazing fund-raising project, ‘The Trail’, which resulted in the construction of a cancer hospital in Jaffna, is at it.  They’ve gone around the pearl (of the Indian Ocean), but their mental and physical wheels have not come to a stop.  Knowing Sarinda, he won’t quit.  He will get to ‘1000’ somehow.  He won’t stop their either. 

Ajith Fernando’s birthday is still a few months away.  He won’t forget his fiftieth year in a hurry.  It began as a simple birthday wish.  It became something few would have imagined a few months ago.  He has his theories. 

‘There’s a book by called James Redfield called “Celestine Prophesy”.  It’s like this.  Sometimes when you are in tune with the energies of the universe, when your purposes are good, the elements conspire to give what you what.  Some might call it coincidence, but it is not.  Everything came together.  Everyone came together.’ 

And then he related how it all began, as recounted above.  None had envisioned the ‘end’.  Everyone, though, had imagined a piece of the story.  It could not be written by any single individual.  It had to be narrated collectively.  It was written around the island of Sri Lanka, a pearl if ever there was one.  From heartbeat to heartbeat, through blister and soreness, the temptation to stop and the will to go on and on and on, these twelve riders inscribed ‘gleam’ on the pearl, with each push on the pedal.  Wheels turned so other wheels could turn.  We are blessed, more than thrice, one could conclude.