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St. Mark's School of Texas
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The Student News Site of St. Mark's School of Texas

ReMarker

The Student News Site of St. Mark's School of Texas

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Ilan Gunawardena, renaissance man

Ilan+Gunawardena%2C+renaissance+man

Ilan Gunawardena can do it all.

The freshman plays basketball, runs track, and most recently, he’s been a stand-out on the Lions football team.

He plays piano, the bass, and is even the president of the Class of 2027.

According to his mother, he’s “played every sport under the sun.”

But Gunawardena’s prowess and potential isn’t fulfilled on the field, court or track. 

Instead, he dominates in the pool. At age 14, he will be representing the Sri Lankan national team at the Asian Swimming Championships in the Philippines this upcoming February and March.

And he’s just getting started.

“I mean, he does so many different things, and he’s good at so many different things,” his training coach, Ross Myers, said. “He is a generational talent when it comes to swimming – he’s unlimited as far as having potential.”

But Ilan’s journey in swimming has not been a typical one. Having learned to swim at age 2, he’s been on a track to compete for a majority of his life.

“I did my first competition when I was 4,” Ilan said. “Obviously, being 4, it didn’t really mean as much as it means now.”

Ilan’s early start in competitive swimming comes as no surprise to those who know his family. His mother, Chantal Gunawardena, was a swimmer for Sri Lanka, and her cousin was a three-time olympian. So, when Ilan took to the pool, it was only natural that he excelled.

“My mother held all the national records for women in Sri Lanka until she was about 15,” Ilan said. “She introduced me to the sport and she’s inspired a lot of what I’m trying to do today.”

When young swimmers choose to swim competitively, they typically take the route of joining a club, which can offer a high level of training from a young age, as well as peers and friends in an individual sport. 

However, these clubs can also be restrictive, with their massive time commitments sometimes limiting their members to focus solely on swimming, instead of trying other sports. 

“The burnout rate for swimmers who start really young is by age 10 or 12,” Chantal said. “It’s just a very long journey as a swimmer — it’s different to some other sports in that [one’s level of success] really is the number of years and and how many hours you spend in the pool.”

But, to this point, Ilan has avoided joining a club, instead opting to train with his own coaches, Alexandra Stevens and Ross Myers, at the Park Cities YMCA. This training structure has allowed Ilan some freedom in the sports and extracurriculars he chooses.

While a more rigorous or swimming-only approach to Ilan’s development could be taken, Chantal believes that other sports provide value to a budding star.

 “The reason [that freedom] was allowed that is to have those choices and the opportunity to find out what you’re really good at,” Chantal said. “I didn’t want him to sacrifice all of the experiences of team sports – the camaraderie and the community. Just being at St. Mark’s has been phenomenal for him in terms of being part of something bigger than him.”

But, at some point, true greatness is formed through hard work and dedication. So, in order to achieve his highest aspirations, Ilan will need to focus on honing his craft. 

“I would say he should narrow [his focus] down to whatever he likes to do,” Myers said. “I mean, if he decides he wants to be a swimmer, then I think he’s at the age now where he really needs to start focusing on that, because some of the swimmers nowadays are extremely fast – kids in high school are faster than those in college.”

And, Ilan believes that he’s ready to make that decision and commitment, diving headfirst into his national swimming career.

“I’m going to start really focusing in on swimming — I’m gonna try and go far in swimming versus other sports,” Ilan said. “But I haven’t really made that jump in focusing only on swimming. I think this [competition] will be a big part of that.”

Ilan’s growth has also been aided by Stevens, who is his main head coach. She recently accepted a job as the Women’s Swimming and Diving coach at Princeton University. Stevens, though acknowledging his talent in other sports, was able to recognize Ilan’s passion for the sport very quickly.

“Ilan started swimming with the [YMCA] not really knowing what his place was in the sport or what his times even really meant,” Stevens said. “He didn’t see the talent that I saw in him. He tried multiple sports, but he always managed to find his way back to the pool.”

Ilan’s swimming journey has been unorthodox, so, it’s only natural that his journey to the Swimming Championships has been of the same ilk – unexpected.

Ilan and his parents, who are both from Sri Lanka, took a six-week long vacation to the island country this summer, with the beach and likely family reunions in mind. But, as Stevens said, Ilan found his way back to the pool.

“While we were on vacation, [Ilan] swam in the nationals there in Sri Lanka,” Chantal said. “It’s not something he trained very hard for, or prepared for a lot. But he said, ‘Well, let’s go and see what it’s like’.”

The preliminary events in Sri Lanka went smoothly for Ilan, giving him the chance to progress throughout his vacation.

So, as the final meet approached, Ilan was training often, inspired by the prospect of performing well at a national level. And, he delivered.

“I placed in the top three at the junior national meet, which qualified me for the national team,” Ilan said. “That meant that I qualified for this meet — the Asian Swimming Championships.”

Because of Ilan’s times in the national meet, he was not required to attend the trials for the national team, which happened last month. His times held up, which means he is an official Sri Lankan swimmer at age 14.

“Representing Sri Lanka, especially since they’re less known, is really special for me,” Ilan said. “I get to represent something that’s unique to me.”

This massive feat for Ilan, though, is just the beginning. He’s got his sights set on an even bigger competition — the Asian Games, and also hopes to one day represent the United States as a swimmer. Ilan is able to compete for Sri Lanka because of his dual citizenship, based on his parents being born there. 

But, his parents and coaches seem to think that this meet is not the culmination of a long and arduous journey to the top of swimming — rather, they see it as a next step in a progression forwards, limited only by Ilan’s willpower.

“I believe Ilan can be a top level, Division I talent,” Stevens said. “He is an incredible kid with a bright future and I can’t wait to see how far he goes in and out of the water.”

And, Myers seems to echo the sentiment that Gunawardena can take swimming extremely far, using an unusual analogy to get his point across.

“[In terms of his potential], if you want to use Toy Story as an example, think of Buzz Lightyear: To infinity and beyond,” Myers said. “I mean, there’s no telling how fast this kid could go.”

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About the Contributors
Neil Yepuri, Sports Editor
Winston Lin, Staff Writer, Staff Photographer