W@W - Solange Gunawijeya

Nov 02 2021.

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A good height for a girl is considered a blessing. But in the Asian context, many girls don’t feel confident in their tan skin color. However, for Solange Gunawijeya, her success story has much to do with her height and skin color. A proud product of St. Joseph’s Girls’ School,Nugegoda, Gunawijeya has travelled to many countries to represent Sri Lanka in basketball and has won many regional championships prior to participating in the 2021 FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament for 3 x 3 Women’s Basketball held earlier this year. On the other hand, she was also crowned as Miss Sri Lanka for Miss Earth back in 2013 breaking stereotypical concepts on colourism. Gracing this month’s cover story, Gunawijeya shared her experiences as a national athlete and thoughts on why Asian girls and women should be confident about their skin colour.

What inspired you to do sports? 
Back in school I used to watch seniors playing netball and I was compelled to take a ball and try shooting. This was when I was in Grade 2. Subsequently, the coaches saw that I was interested in the sport and asked if I would like to join the team. The first tournament I participated was the Under 11 Milo Schools Netball Championship in 2003. My height also had a lot to do with my engagement in netball. I started playing basketball because of the house meet. 

Tell us how you ended up being a national athlete in basketball.
We used to practice with girls and boys in the national team. They used to practise at the school court. In 2005 the first selection for the national team took place and I too got selected.

Having played basketball and netball since school days, are you satisfied with the infrastructure and opportunities Sri Lanka has in place for these two sports?
There are enough facilities for netball, but in terms of basketball, the facilities need to be improved. I have been playing basketball for almost 17 years and what I have felt is that there’s less support from the Government. I got selected for Olympic Qualifiers earlier this year but we didn’t get certain venues for practices. We don’t have indoor courts, 3 x 3 courts to begin with. But recently I saw that the government has planned to open a 3 x 3 court. This shows that the sport is slowly developing and I’m happy to see this progress. 

What improvements do you suggest for basketball?
We need proper practice. 3 x 3 is an upcoming game in basketball and players need at least 6-7 months of practice. There are talented players in many parts of the country including Jaffna. But for them, travelling and lodging are issues. They need to practise in indoor courts set at specific temperatures. In foreign countries, players are expected to practise in courts set at minus temperatures. As such that sort of practise is essential. We have the Sugathadasa Stadium and I hope this government will provide the necessary facilities to produce good basketball players that will make the country proud. The Sri Lanka Basketball Federation too has been very supportive right throughout. 

Sri Lanka’s education system is such that children are less motivated to do sports now. Why is sports important for children? What is it that you learnt from doing sports?
I didn’t have time to study when I was doing O/Ls. I used to study at the basketball courts because I was fully involved in the sport. But I passed with good results. You need to have the confidence in yourself and when doing a sport, you need to be patient as well. The support from your family also plays a key role. My school friends also supported me to catch up on lessons that I have missed. What I have to say is that children shouldn’t be afraid of studies or sports even though both of them are challenges that you need to overcome in life. 

Why did you decide to walk the ramp?
I never wanted to be a model. This happened because of my mother and sister. Back then they used to go on Facebook from my profile and one day they have seen an advertisement of the Derana Miss Sri Lanka for Miss Earth pageant. So what they have done is taken a photo of mine and sent an application without my knowledge. One day I got a call from the TV station saying that I have been shortlisted for this pageant but I wasn’t aware of it. I turned down the request in the first instance and I remember telling them that I was dark. But they weren’t ready to let me go and asked me to participate in it. Even though I expressed my disappointment to my family I decided to participate in the pageant and to my surprise I ended up being crowned as Miss Sri Lanka for Miss Earth in 2013. The following year, I won the Top Model of the World title.

You have won many titles in popular pageants. But many Sri Lankans feel less beautiful or attractive with their brown skin and they opt for various treatments to become fair. What is your stance on colourism?
I feel that I managed to break this colour barrier to an extent. Initially I too was worried about my colour, but after some time, I realised that this is our colour. We have our own beauty. Many Sri Lankans, and in fact, most Asians, are of the view that white is beautiful. But South Asians have a tan colour and they should learn to be confident with their skin colour. 

What is the most satisfying part about being a basketball player?
It’s stress relieving. When I play a game after work it makes me feel comfortable and relaxed. On the other hand, I got to travel a lot. The biggest achievement is participating in the Olympic Qualifiers tournament and becoming an Olympic qualifying basketball player is more than enough for me. 

What were the challenges?
I had two injuries. One was in 2009 when I was practising for the Netball Asian Cup. This is when I decided to select one sport. Then in 2012 I had a knee injury. Six months after I won the Miss Sri Lanka title my father passed away. But I’m glad that I was able to achieve many things amidst all these obstacles. 

Future aspirations?
I will continue playing basketball but not as a national player since I’m now settled in Dubai. I would like to start a basketball academy for youngsters here and share my experience with them. At this point I would like to thank my basketball coach Mr. Ajith Kuruppu, my netball coaches Ms. Desima Fernando and Trixie Nanayakkara, my mother Nirosha Gunawijeya, sister Mishika Gunawijeya, my father late Hiran Gunawijeya, my husband Kavishka Ratnayake, the Sri Lanka Basketball Federation and the Sports Ministry for all the support they have extended throughout my journey. 

Image courtesy Arantha Sirimanna / Prishan Pandithage



Kamanthi Wickramasinghe

A psychology graduate who eventually became a journalist to be a voice for unheard voices. A proud Sri Lankan - Thalassophile - Travel fan - Nature lover - Chocoholic - Extraordinarily loud - Frequent laughaholic. Follow me on Instagram - @kamzylifeTM or FB – Kamanthi Wickramasinghe


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