"I won’t let setbacks discourage me from having the life I want": Miss Universe Sri Lanka 2018 Ornella Mariam Gunesekere on coming back after being paralysed

21 Mar 2020 | Angelique Reyes

Ornella Mariam Gunesekere was crowned Miss Universe Sri Lanka 2018 on 25th September 2018 and represented Sri Lanka at Miss Universe 2018. She also won Miss Congeniality award, Model of the Year title, Miss Popular award, and Miss Confident special award during the pageant. The diva was unplaced during the Miss Universe 2018 pageant but was highly appreciated for her performance and won Miss Congeniality Award.

Ornella was always an athletic person during her school days and at the age of 13, she took a tumble during a routine basketball game. The diva was unaware that her tumble would confine her to a lumbar brace for the next seven years as it triggered symptoms of an undetected birth defect.

Later, the beauty queen was diagnosed with spondylolisthesis; a spinal condition causing the lower vertebrae to slip forward to the bone directly beneath it. The experts and doctors identified Ornella’s condition as grade 2 but by the time she was 20-years-old, the condition deteriorated to grade 3. Grade 3 was when the slippage was between 51% and 75%.


‘I won’t let setbacks discourage me from having the life I want.’ Miss Universe Sri Lanka 2018 Ornella Gunesekere on coming back after being paralysed


Ornella explained, “I couldn’t sit for more than 30 minutes. The pain was getting worse passing every year. By the time I was 20 years old my left leg was almost fully paralysed and I was dragging it to get around. ‘I spent months in bed only getting up, with help, to use the bathroom.”

To stop her conditioning from worsening the doctors started to look for solutions and proposed a surgery where they inserted two six-inched titanium rods and four screws to realign the spine. This was followed by six months of rehabilitation when she was bed-bound and nurses would brush her teeth for her. A further six months passed before the nerves fully healed. The diva was pain-free for the first time in seven years.


Ornella Mariam Gunesekere Miss Universe Sri Lanka 2018


When the model turned 22-years-old, the titanium rods broke from over-exertion while she was studying in the US. This eventually led to more surgery to help her and the second time, Ornella recovered fast. The model was now terrified of her own body and no longer trusted herself with it. She returned home and began modelling, acting, and taking part in beauty pageants to build herself a career.

Ornella had a chance to encounter with personal training duo, Tanuja and Hasitha Raymond. The duo worked hard and changed Ornella’s life again for the better. ‘When I first met her, I remember thinking she was frail like a bird. She spoke of her injuries and cautious with movement. But she always turned up”, says Tanuja.


Miss Universe Sri Lanka 2018 Ornella Mariam Gunesekere


In January 2020, Ornella was invited to join the Highest Altitude Fashion Show organized by Nepal. The fashion show was supposed to take place in Kala Patthar, Nepal; 5643 metres above sea level. Models were required to carry their own backpacks and trek past Everest Base Camp.

When Ornella showed interest in participating in the fashion show, Tanuja and Hasitha worked hard and amped up Ornella’s training. They began work on strengthening her back and making it better suited to climbing. ‘When she prepared for Everest, she trained two hours a day carrying a 10kg backpack during her workouts,’ Tanuja explains.

Ornella trekked for 16 days to reach Black Rock, a steep World Heritage site on Mount Everest. Ornella mentioned that ‘The show was highlighting climate change to encourage tourists not to litter the Himalayas. Everyone had their own biodegradable garbage bag to pick up our own litter along the route. There was so much of it by the time we reached Kala Patthar.’



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The Fashion show was a step-in promoting sustainability in fashion. The clothes were designed by Nepali brand KASA, were all biodegradable and organic and made of pashmina, felt and yak wool. The fashion show was attended by Kedar Bahadur Adhikari, secretary of the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, and Nandini Lahe Thapa, senior director of Nepal Tourism Board, among others.

Taking place on Mount Everest, the show was recognised as the highest altitude fashion show on land by a Guinness World Record officiator. With temperatures dipping below minus 10 degrees Celsius, rough sleeping and only solar-powered heating conditions became unbearable at times. Ornella’s determination to take the charge of her life back and perseverance made her complete he journeys; even when several others dropped out of the journey.

Ornella, was crowned Toughest Model of the event for her determination. The organisers were astounded by her strength of mind and resolve. The surprise overwhelmed Ornella even though she had fought hard to get there. ‘The only thing standing in your way is you. I know how it felt when I was lying on a hospital bed, unable to move by myself. I don’t want to feel that powerless again. ‘I won’t let setbacks discourage me from having the life I want.’ Ornella stated.