By Algi Wijewickrema
What surprised me when I first saw Tara Bolling was the difficulty with which she walked but if that was surprising, to hear of her indomitable courage was awe inspiring and what a pleasure it was to talk with her.
Since we agreed that she’ll start at the beginning I asked her how her schooling was and pat came the reply “I was a school dropout at 14 years of age” and that set the tone for a pleasant interview, which I’d rather call a chat.
So why did she drop out, was the next obvious question. And the answer was simply put and logical for a 14-year-old schoolgirl: “I wanted free periods and lots of them”. She carried on “I had an aunt in England who supplied me with stink bombs, smoke bombs, itching powder, etc and I used them to the maximum in school. The sole aim was to create chaos and have free periods.”
But she believes that she was a girl who lacked confidence and her parents, F C “Derrick” de Saram and Nedra, who had not known how to handle her, had placed her in the boarding house of Bishops College as a punishment hoping that she would change. But the boarding life had lasted only one term and five days but Tara had had a whale of a time in that short period, putting the supplies of stink bombs and itching powder to good use and disturbing prep (study) time.
“When I failed along with thirteen others that year I was put into a parallel class and failed again with another girl and the result was I dropped out of school.” Asked if she had regrets in dropping out at the age of 14, Tara unhesitatingly replied with a look of defiance: “None whatsoever.”
Tara’s father had been a sportsman of repute, having played cricket, tennis, and golf for Ceylon while her mother was the first Ceylonese to win the National Tennis Championship. However, Tara had never taken to any of these sports and as providence would have it she had been introduced to Harry Nightingale, the Australian Olympic swimming champion who had come to coach in Ceylon in 1936 and the girl who could not run form the age of six, had taken to swimming like a duck to water. And her mother had often said that if it was not for Harry, she would not have known what to do with Tara.
About Harry Nightingale, Tara had only praise. “He was a wonderful coach” she said. “From being a girl who lacked confidence he made be believe in myself.”
When it was time for Nightingale to return to Australia, Tara’s parents had decided to ship her off to Australia and she had stayed with Harry to continue her coaching and on her return after nine months, the naughty and negative girl had gained confidence.
Going back to when she was younger, from the age of seven she had been into competitive swimming though her parents, who were themselves sports persons of repute, had never pushed her into any sport. “My father never came to see me swim at competitions, or so I thought till one day C. Ivers Gunesekera, the famous Ceylon cricketer and a contemporary of my father, told me that he (my father) would come and watch me without being seen and go away.”
Tara reminisced on her sea swims: “The two-mile sea swim was my favourite, at which I had earned two golds by the time I was 14 years old. I had a simple goal when I took part in competitions and that was and that no man should pass me or beat my timing. On the day of the swim my mother objected to the item of clothing I was to wear and so being determined to wear it and being refused to be taken, I collected cent coins at home to travel by bus alone. But as the amount I had collected was not sufficient for me to travel to Mount Lavinia I had to walk some distance before I reached the starting point and was tired but I did not change my goal.
“In this race, the girls started off five minutes before the boys and though no man passed me and though my timing was not beaten despite being tired, the finish line was on the shore and we had to get out of the sea and run to the finish line and as I with my bad feet couldn’t run as fast as the man who was behind me, he reached the finish line first. I was first among the girls anyway.”
After the event her father had come to pick her but though she was carrying the trophy she had won, there had been not a word spoken between them all the way home and no word of congratulation had been uttered even after she got home. That was her parents’ way of teaching her discipline. It’s not “name and fame” but obedience that counted was the lesson taught and learnt, which had lasted a life time.
On another occasion she had started to mow the lawn but stopped when she came out with blisters on both her palms. But her father had given her surgical spirits to pour on her palms and though she was screaming with pain he had forced her to continue with the words, “Finish what you start.” Another lesson from the “army discipline” taught by her father and another lesson learnt.
At 17, Tara had been selected to represent Ceylon in Tokyo in 1958. She had been the only girl in the team with only one other swimmer, a male, Tony Williams as she recalls, but no coach. Immediately after they had arrived the manager had disappeared and she had had to fend for herself. Harry Nightingale had taught her to have a heavy warm-up and before an event and when the 400m freestyle event was to take place she managed to find a bus and get to a pool do a warm-up but found that there was no bus to get back.
Eventually, catching a bus late she had returned and had lunch but then there was the problem of getting back to the games site, When the Japanese swimmers had realised that Tara had no way to get to the pool they had invited her to travel with them. After all this when she did participate in the event she finished fourth. The lower timing she believes was because she had to compete after a late lunch and under mental strain.
Having come back to Ceylon, she swam to check her timing only to find that she achieved a timing better than the third in the Asian Games. Although she never had plans of becoming a coach at the time, she had decided that if ever she was a coach or manager she’d never do what the manager did to the team in Japan.
In the same year (1958) still 17 years she had been selected to swim for the Bombay-Ceylon meet in Bombay in her pet event, the 400m freestyle. She reminded me that her goal “no man should pass me or beat my timing” still applied and true to her promise, she had beaten the fastest Indian (male). In recognition of this feat, the organisers had promised her a real gold medal and while the normal medal presentation took place at the meet at which she duly received her gold medal, S. Bajaj the man responsible for the meet had ensured that a real gold medal was sent to her in Ceylon, which she still displays proudly.
At the age of 20, she had attended a party of a friend of her cousins with whom she was staying at the time as her mother was in England. A young man, Ralph Bolling eight years her senior, had been introduced to her at the party. She had found out that he was from Matale and therefore a boarder and like her a prankster at school. Unlike her father who was a Royalist, Ralph was a Josephian but like her father one who was not into swimming. And Ralph was similar to her father in the sports he took part in. He was into cricket, hockey, tennis and football.
She married Ralph and left Colombo, moving to Dickoya Estate and Tara’s two elder boys, Jeremy and David were born there. Despite her busy schedule with her duties as housewife and mother she had made sure that she found lakes and pools to swim in.
“Though my husband was a Josephian, my father did not allow his grandchildren to go to any school other than his beloved Royal College,” she said. Tara made it a point to tell me that though neither her parents nor her husband were into swimming her children were all swimmers and into water sports.
Coming to Colombo after a time, she trained for one month and took part in the two-mile swim again (“One man beat my timing”) and again emerged women’s champion.
When she dropped out of school she said never realised she’d be a swimming coach. “God works in mysterious ways and I took to coaching as finances had to come in. This was after Julian was born,” she said. Starting in 1967, she had coached at Otters for 44 years. To Tara, coaching was not only teaching to swim but something more. Here what she learnt from Harry Nightingale had stood in good stead for her and her charges, for she knew the importance of giving confidence to the girls who did not have confidence.
Tara was appointed national coach for the SAF games 1988-89 and before that was the coach cum manager for the Asian Games team, in 1983, in which Julian her son was a team member. Being the stickler for discipline that she was, when Julian had failed to follow the rules laid down, in a long report she had submitted to the National Olympic Committee she had reported against him.
That said, all three of her sons represented Sri Lanka in different water sports then and now there are her grandchildren are representing Sri Lanka, making it four generations that represented the country in one form of sports or another.
In 1988, she had been training students in a well-known club (not Otters) which had treated her and the girls she was training unfairly and when Tara had attended the opening of the Sri Lanka Army pool, Lt. General Hamilton Wanasinghe, the commander, had invited her to use the army pool for her squad of girls. “So I did a walk of faith. I closed the coaching at the club and started at the army pool and though the girls had dropped out earlier they came back one by one.”.
Continuing, she said: “Six months later Ralph and I were coaching, training and helping many of the soldiers disabled in the cruel northern war who had been wallowing in self-pity. Soon they were taking up tennis, basketball, swimming, etc. I think they related to me easily as they saw me struggling with my club foot but still coaching and carrying on with all the work at home with no complaint to anyone.”
Recalling an incident which illustrated the family bonding she spoke of how in 1984 when Julian, a 17-year-old had been invited to captain the entire SAF games team from Sri Lanka but the finances had to be found by him. When he was told, and as the family could not afford it, he offered to withdraw. But subsequently the organisers found the finances and he went. Tara said she was happy because he had known that family was the priority.
Tara Bolling was the first Sri Lankan (or Ceylonese) woman swimmer to represent the country at any international meet and so I asked her for any message or advice that she’d give to the present generation. Tara said: “I have different advice for two different groups. One for the children – do the best you can and don’t be pressured into doing what you don’t want to do. The second for parents – Let the children make their choices.”
Now living in quiet retirement after heart surgery, with no specific plans but each day a full day, she is content to walk with the Lord and she said as we came to the end of our little chat: “I’m happy experiencing the Lord, which happiness money can’t buy.”
Editor’s note: it was a privilege and a blessing for Quadrangle to interview Tara Bolling before her demise in August ‘2017. We (my self and Algi) had a wonderful time with her as she shared many fond memories, including about her father late F.C. De Saram and growing up three sons (Jeremy, David & Julian) and her coaching stints at various schools (Bishop’s College, Hillwood College etc) and at the National level. She is truly a ‘Legend’ for the simple yet inspiring life she spent and work she done, the challenges she overcame, for the discipline, faith and courage she had and instilled among her students including her own sons. It was a memorable interview for us and we sincerely hope this pays tribute to Tara. May she rest in peace in God’s loving arm. This article was published on 9th issue of Quadrangle Magazine released in May 2017. If you like to share your memories of Tara and pay a tribute to her wonderful God gifted life, please do share your thoughts with us through firstname.lastname@example.org
(Sujith Silva: Editor)