On Saturday, as he posed for pictures after winning gold at the Mountain West Outdoor Track & Field Championships in Clovis, California, with a jump of 8.02m, Lokesh Sathyanath wanted someone else to be part of his victory. From his kit bag, he pulled out a small passport-sized picture of his mother, which he always keeps with him, and held it next to his medal. “I wouldn’t have been here if it wasn’t for her,” he says. It was a poignant moment for those who understood the meaning behind the 22-year-old’s gesture.There was, of course, much to celebrate. With his 8.02-metre leap, Lokesh had added his name to a small but very prestigious list of Indian track and field athletes. He became only the 10th Indian long jumper to clear the 8-metre benchmark in this event. As things stand, he currently holds the third-best jump by an Indian this season and features in the top 25 in the world this year.
It’s a result that would appear to have justified the belief many once had in the 22-year-old multiple-time junior national champion and member of the Indian team that competed at the 2018 Junior World Championships. For all his potential, Lokesh’s performances once seemed to have been stuck in limbo in India, even as he was plagued by self-doubt following a serious vehicular accident. Now, though, it would appear that Lokesh has found a second wind as a student-athlete at the University of New Mexico in the USA, where he is pursuing a liberal arts degree. It’s still early in what is his first season in Division 1 track and field—the highest standard of college sport in the USA—but if the massive jump is any indication, the signs are good.
Lokesh’s decision to make a career in collegiate competition in the USA will always be a bittersweet one. He wasn’t always thinking of pursuing collegiate sports. However, almost exactly two years ago, as Lokesh’s mother, Fency Mary, battled what would be the final stages of a COVID-19 infection, she advised him to take the chance. “My mom’s last words were, ‘go follow your dreams. Go to the place where you can achieve your dreams’. That inspired me and pushed me emotionally,” he says.
He had first considered the opportunity five years earlier. Back then, in 2018, Lokesh was one of India’s best junior long jumpers, with a personal best of 7.74m that had won him gold at the Junior South Asian Championships in Colombo, Sri Lanka. After competing at the U-20 World Championships in Tampere, Finland, he attracted the attention of several coaches scouting for track and field programmes in the USA.
Born and raised in Bangalore in a sports-mad family—father John played football for the Bangalore Police while sister Monica was a national-level 400-metre runner—Lokesh wasn’t certain whether he wanted to leave familiar surroundings. “I knew it was a good opportunity, but I was not confident if I would be able to adjust. I had a strong support structure, and I was progressing well under my coach in India,” he says.
But even as he weighed his options, any plans were tossed aside when he was struck by a car while travelling to practice on his motorcycle. “My face, lips, shoulders, hands, ribs, and knees were all hurt. Anyone who saw my accident couldn’t believe that I escaped with my life. I was in bed for a month. I was drinking my food through a straw because my face from my lips to my wisdom tooth were torn open,” he says.
There were mental scars as well. “I couldn’t even bear to look at myself because my facial injuries were that bad. Before that incident, I was in good form and trying for the Worlds’ qualifiers in Doha, but I couldn’t continue. I was in the national team, but I had to drop out. I would have panic attacks. I would stay by myself in a room, and eventually, my friends didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t even sleep. It was just me and my parents at that time. I had a lot of mental health issues that I was dealing with at the time. I was on a lot of anxiety medication as a result of it,” he says.
Even after he recovered, Lokesh didn’t immediately want to take up any of the college offers. “After my accident, I eventually started training and competing again, but at that time I wasn’t sure that I wanted to go to the USA. I wasn’t confident at the level I was at. At that time, I felt that if I did go to college in the USA, I’d be seen as just a regular athlete—just some Indian who came and went without really doing anything. So I felt I should go there once I was back at a certain level. My mindset was that I wanted to be an athlete who would be looked up to, as this is what an athlete from India looks like,” he says.
As time passed, Lokesh’s enthusiasm to train abroad waned even as he continued to improve as a jumper. He won gold at the South Asian Games in Kathmandu and made a personal best of 7.93m at the selection trials for the World University Games in early 2021.
It was only rekindled in the most painful of circumstances during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in India. When Lokesh’s mother fell ill, the family didn’t worry at first until her condition deteriorated suddenly. With doctors preparing the family for the inevitable, Lokesh was permitted to visit his parent. “When she was in the last stages of her life, she held my hand, kissed it, and started crying. She just said I had to make the most of whatever opportunity I had. That was the last thing she spoke to me,” he says.
Until then, Mary had never tried to influence her son in any way. “In my entire athletic career, she had been nothing but supportive. She was my biggest motivation. If I had a bad day or if I lost, she would tell me she was there for me, and then she would cook my favourite food so that I would feel better. When I lost her, it was as if I lost everything,” he says.
The shock made him enter a cycle of despair once again. “I was unable to come out of my room. I wasn’t meeting any of my friends. I was once again taking medication for my mental health issues. Then one day, my dad talked to me and told me how, without any warning, my mom was no longer with me. You never know when we won’t have the time to fulfil our desires. Whatever time and opportunity we get, I have to grab it and work for what I want to do. I had to get up, start crawling, run, and move. I can’t be still in one place,” he says.
Two months after his mother passed away, Lokesh once again started applying to colleges in the USA. “I was essentially just sending cold emails to whoever I could. I asked coaches and athletes I had met to recommend me to others. I became very serious about it. I’d stay up late so I could reply to emails immediately,” he says.
As it turned out, coaches were still interested in him. Eventually, he was offered a full scholarship by the University of New Mexico. While the University of New Mexico’s field program isn’t nearly as renowned as its cross country team (Josh Kerr, 2020 Olympic bronze medallist in the 1500m, was part of the college team), Lokesh says he was convinced by Bob Thurnhoffer, jumps coach at New Mexico.
Lokesh started college in August last year, and now with a suitably American nickname, Loki, he hasn’t looked back since. “I was a little nervous before I came from India because I felt I would have to start from scratch, but I think I have made the right choice. My coach here is really good. He understands me and knows how to make me better. The facilities here are great. I have my training coach, and I have a different coach for weight training. After training, I have an athletics trainer for rehabilitation and a physical therapist who works on me each week to see if I am doing well,” he says.
In last year’s offseason, Lokesh changed his technique. He’s switched from the single hitch kick to the technically challenging double hitch kick style that allows him to extend his airtime. The modification has worked, as his season opener in outdoor competition suggests.
But Lokesh isn’t planning on being satisfied with just an 8.02-metre jump. “I am very happy to cross 8m. It was something I had always dreamed of when I was in India, and I’ve been able to achieve it in my first outdoor competition in the USA. It tells me I’m on the right track, but it’s only the first step for me. I want to compete and improve on my personal best at the NCAA national championships and the World University Games as well,” he says.
He’s keeping an eye out for a potential return to the Indian team at the Asian Games, too. While this might be hard considering only two Indians are permitted to compete in each event at Hangzhou and Lokesh is only the third-best jumper in the country (behind Jeswin Aldrin and Murali Sreeshankar) right now, he feels he has a chance. For that, he plans on returning to India to compete at the Federation Cup in Bhubaneswar next month. None of this will be cheap. While he is on a full scholarship in the USA, Lokesh has to pay for his non-college sports expenses on his own. “I’m spending all the prize money I’ve won in competitions in the past. I don’t feel bad about it. I see it as giving myself the best opportunity to fulfil my mother’s dreams for me,” he says.
Indeed, it’s his mother who continues to motivate him in every competition he takes part in. “I always carry her picture with me. I have her portrait on the table in my dorm room, and I also carry her picture with me when I am competing. I know that she would be proud of me for chasing my dream. Every step I take and every time I jump, I feel she is there with me,” he says.
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