S. L. B. Rosa — That undying rose of Lanka

By Gamini Perera
Competitive athletics is not pure statistics or figures used as a denominator to determine the winner. It is far beyond the Alpha and the Omega of human enduraned, energy, effort and an expanding frontier, whose end none can predict with a degree of finality.

What looks like the ultimate, falls within the realm of possibility and is ultimately conquered.

Thousands of spectators had experienced the joy and had shared the moments of high drama, when athletes battled time, distance and height.

There was this horse, SELLAPULIYAGE LUCIEN BENEDICT ROSA, the Sri Lankan athlete who writ his name in gold at the 1970 Asian Games in Bangkok.

Now turned 58, Rosa was back in Sri Lanka in 1996 from the States to give some valuable tips to our athletes, who were then preparing for the SAF Games.

We thought only in a land like Ethiopia there were marathon runners of fame.

But, our own S. L. B. Rosa proved this wrong when he set a new Asian Games record time of 29:55.6 secs in the 10,000 meter event. And in the 5000 meter, Rosa then beat India’s famed Edward Sequera and Kingie Kismihara of Japan with another record time of 14:35.0 secs. This was way back in 1970.

Chief coach

Rosa was once the chief Cross Country coach at the University of Wisconsin, Parkside, USA. That was the time Rosa was in Sri Lanka and this writer had the pleasant fortune to meet him and talk him through to an interview. According to Rosa, his golden year in athletics would have been 1976.

"I was No. 2 in the States to Frank Shodder and flew into Montreal at the expense of the Wisconsin University to take part for Sri Lanka in the 1976 Olympiad. They sent me there as they were confident of my capabilities. But, I was denied the opportunity to run for my country, despite receiving the running numbers. Please don’t ask me what happened, cause it brings tears into my eyes.

More than my own people, it were the folks in Kenosha Town, Wisconsin, who were really disappointed about my exclusion from the Games. I was in the village for 16 days, only a mere spectator. Let’s not upset a Hornets’s Nest," S. L. B. Rosa told me in that exclusively interview he had with me.

Diligent preparation

"I prepared very diligently for that Olympics as I was certain to win a medal. Man proposes, God disposes," Rosa lamented.

In 1974, Rosa came fourth in the Boston Marathon with a time of 2:15.4 secs.

"The winner was a New Zealander, the runner-up, an American, third was a Canadian, and I finished fourth," he remembered.

"Mind you, U.S.A.’s No. 2 long-distance runner, Bill Rogers was place 16th in this world-famed Boston Marathon," remarked Rosa to me.

Rosa also told me that he, in the same year improved his Asian Games record time at the NAIA nationals in Arkadelphia, Arkansa, clocking 28:24.2 secs. in the six-mile championship.

"Incidentally, this race was only 389 yards short of the 10,000 meters", he remembered then.

In 1975, Rosa was placed eleventh in the World Championship Marathon in Japan, clocking a time of 2:13.41 secs.

"All these achievements before the 1976 Olympics were not good enough for me to represent Sri Lanka at Montreal. May be there was something wrong somewhere," he whispered to me.

Rosa succeeded Victor Godfrey as the Head Cross Country coach of the University of Wisconsin and was promoted as Cross Country and Track & Field coach of the University in September, 1982.

He had then succeeded Bob Lawson who moved onto the US Naval Academy in May, 1981.

Rosa’s proud products at the Wisconsin University were: Don Stublaski (5000 metres), Paul Canastra (800 metres), Dave Mueller (5000 metres) and Gary Priem (1500 and 800 metres).

"Later all of these dedicated athletes went onto win national honours in USA," Rosa announced rather proudly to me.

Rosa had joined the University of Wisconsin in January, 1977 as a student, worked as a cleaning boy, in a shopping centre, during his spare time from 4.00 am, before running to College which was seven miles away from his apartment.

"The road to success is truly a thorny one. An athlete must put in 90% work, while the coach can only contribute 10% towards his charge," has been Rosa’s theory always.

He said that two complaints our athletes in Sri Lanka make are lack of nutritional food and the time factor.

Lame factors

"These are lame factors, Gamini, I too confronted the same problems, but, fought my way out of them, to derive benefits and to achieve the targets, one must prove his or her worth, first," Rosa advised the budding athletes.

"With self-discipline and will-power, one makes one’s life’s ambitions look simpler to achieve," was his school of thought.

He said that long distance runners must train like distance runners, and not as sprinters.

"A long distance runner should not walk in between the repeats and even his short rest should be a jog! Certainly valuable advice to our present day long distance athletes who aspire to be long distance runners.

According to Rosa, learning the correct pace work was of paramount importance, both, for a middle distance and a long distance runner. "The second half of the race must be faster than the first half to achieve ultimate success," was another advice he gave our young atheletes.

Rosa, during that interview with me outlined a training schedule to those aspiring to be long distance runners.

It was: The first session should include 14-800s, with warm-ups and the cooling down in between.

The miler must do at least 15-miles on his daily work-outs.

A seven-day work-out should comprise easy days and hard days of training alternatively.

A long distance runner must cover six to eight miles daily and enhance it to 10 to 15 miles on the weekends, when he is expected to do light work-outs.

"Records are set to break, but when you look at our records, they are lasting for ten to fifteen years. This fact alone shows that our standards still have much room for improvement," Rosa opined.

Unearth latent talent

"Undoubtedly, there are Duncan Whites, Ethirveerasinghams, Wimaladasas, or for that matter even Rosas in our land still. Let the powers be unearth their latent talents and extend to them a helping hand to rise to international fame. Don’t forget that these athletes, abounding with latent talent are mostly in the outstations and the interior regions of Sri Lanka," he believed.

Our eternal Island witnessed those amazing feats of Sellapuliyage Lucien Benedict Rosa, that could still stand the test of time and tide. Seemingly for me S. L. B. Rosa is from eternity.

Lasting momento

Many are the momentos this writer had received from sporting celebrities during his journalistic career lasting over three decades. But, the picture (a copy) we carry today with Rosa’s feature, given to me, duly autographed, with compliments and best wishes stands prominently in my mini library. It is a token from a world-renowned athlete to me, which I will treasure for the ends of time.