Coming off a silver medal at the Asian Championships, with multiple jumps over 8m and a personal best of 8.41m this season, long jumper Murali Sreeshankar is looking in fine touch as he heads towards the World Championships. The 24 year-old speaks about his expectations from Budapest and how he’s looking to carry forward his consistency to the international level. He also speaks about his often testy but ultimately trusted relationship with his father, his ‘Mamba mindset,’ and why he always carries a Rubik’s cube with him during competitions.
After your last jump at the 2018 Asian Games, you stared at the jumping pit and spoke as if you were taking an oath. Do you remember that?
I do remember that moment. I finished sixth in Jakarta. I thought I had a good last jump, but fouled it by the slightest of margins. I looked into the camera and said — ‘I will be back.’ Hopefully, I will be able to redeem myself at this Asian Games. I feel I’m much better and mature as an athlete now.
In every Olympics since you were born (March 27, 1999), your two best jumps this year (8.41m and 8.37m) would guarantee a medal. But at the same time, 67 jumpers have crossed 8m this year. What do you make of that?
I believe that if it is my day, and my approach and my rhythm are set, I will put up a good jump when it matters. An 8.35m+ jump will win a medal at all major championships including the World Championships and the Olympics. But it’s also going to be the kind of jump that will be needed at the Asian level.
Right now, there are a lot of people who can win a medal at the Olympics. Miltiadis (Tentoglou, the reigning Olympic champion) is regularly jumping above 8.25m, but apart from him, the field is very open. I have been doing good jumps consistently in the domestic circuit, but the challenge is to prove myself at the international level. I’m getting there. I did quite well in the conditions in Paris, in Greece and in the USA. Next year, hopefully, everything will go great.
What’s it like jumping with Tentoglou? At his first Olympics he was 28th, and you were 24th in yours.
He is very strong mentally. 90 per cent of his jumps are thanks to his mental strength. When all the other jumpers falter in competition with respect to the weather conditions or the crowd or anything, he is able to adjust. What really helped him was that from 2016 onwards, he has been competing regularly in the Diamond League and other major competitions with the best jumpers. The last time when I competed at the World Championship Final, I was the only one who had never competed in a Diamond League. We have to get more experience on the global circuit so that we are competitive among them.
Is there anything else about your preparation you would want to change?
My sleep routine is very bad. I usually sleep around 1am. Right now, I’m reading the book Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. I’m sure by the end of it, I will realise just how disastrous my sleep habits have been. I’m trying to do better. I’m trying to sleep by, at least, midnight, and gradually bring it down to 10.30-11 pm.
You have spoken of the importance of getting your run-up right. Could you explain that?
The main purpose of the long jump approach is to get the maximum possible horizontal velocity, and, without losing much speed, convert it into the vertical velocity. I have a 19-step approach. With my stride pattern, my approach comes to about 44.50m to 46m depending on how fast the track is. A lot of athletes use an initial skip, like they have a jog and then start from one particular spot and they take 18 or 16 steps — like Tentoglou or Jeswin (Aldrin).
I’ve tried different kinds of rhythms. I began the season with a skip. I’ve tried the 20-step approach also — starting with the other leg, just to see if my speed is right in the last 10 metres of the approach. But I’ve returned to the single-step approach.
We used to have a few sprinters who did the long jump back in the day. Carl Lewis, for instance. People don’t double up much now?
Carl Lewis was a once-in-a-generation athlete. Because doing the 100m, 200m and then killing it in the long jump is incredible. He could run the 100m in 9.7 seconds and also took off without losing any speed.
That’s maximum translation of horizontal velocity into vertical velocity. He was a treat to watch. When we first got a computer at home, the first thing my father got was the Carl Lewis documentary CD.
You are a remarkably built athlete. You used to be wiry earlier, but have really muscled up on your lower body. Have you changed your training routine?
Actually, my dad has planned all my weight training schedules in such a way that it is optimal for the long jump. I am not bulking much into my upper body because that might restrict my movement in the arm swings. We focus more on power and power-based movements, rather than just strength. Earlier I used to do 300kg quarter squats, but now I am doing 200kg half squats at speed so that the power output is good. I spoke to Dr. Klaus (Bartonietz) — Olympic javelin champion Neeraj Chopra’s coach — about this. He told me that for a long jumper or javelin thrower, power is much more important than just strength. Strength is just a small aspect to measure the quantity of power. Power-based training is also helping me stay injury-free.
You have been training with your dad since childhood. He has been an athlete himself. Is he a disciplinarian?
When we are on the track, he is very strict. He hates it if my friends or family come to watch me training and start talking. Once my dad had put some cones to mark my approach runs. A small kid came running and picked up one of those cones. My dad shouted at the kid as if he were a grown up. I told him, ‘He’s just a small kid.’ My dad responded, “I’d measured everything correctly. Why did he move the cone? Why are his parents so irresponsible?”
He’s very focused in training. His theory is if we lose focus in training, there are chances of picking up injuries. So, in training, I need to have my full focus.
Did you play anything else as a kid?
I played basketball but not at a competitive level because my dad felt I could get injured. He only allows me to play when he’s around. He was a very good basketball player. One-on-one, I think, at the age of 56, he’ll still cook me.
Can you dunk, though?
Yeah, I do. I’m a long jumper, so (naturally).
What attracted you to the long jump?
When I was young, I used to go to a stadium with my dad. My dad used to put up hurdles and ask me to jump. I would jump over them easily without any fear. Perhaps it is in me, kind of genetically. When I spoke to my dad’s friends and coaches, they used to say he was really explosive.
What is the dynamic between you and your father?
My dad says he didn’t have the kind of vision I have. I have always dreamed of having an Olympic medal or a World Championship medal. My dad’s dreams (S Murali was a silver medallist in the triple jump at the South Asian Games) were a lot smaller. He says in his time, they just wanted to win the National Championship, go for SAFF tournaments, or maybe the Asian Games.
My dad is really strict with me but that’s because he wants me to fulfil the kind of potential I have as an athlete. The only time he is pretty chill is the day after the competition. I don’t have any training session for that day but in the evening, he will go back to coach mode and ask if I am fit to train the next day. That’s good too. You need to have a tough task master to guide you in the right direction, just tune you up.
Have there been moments where you disagreed with him?
He always treated me like a potential Olympic champion. That meant to have the discipline of an Olympic champion. If I wanted to play with my friends, he’d always advise me to think of my goals 10 years ahead. We do argue. The last one was over my sleeping habits.
How similar are you to your dad?
He is much more serious about preparation than me. Every minute detail matters to him. There’s always a bit of back and forth between us. But in terms of love for sport and, in fact, the love for basketball, we are the same. We are both fans of Golden State Warriors. We are big fans of Stephen Curry, and also admire Michael Jordan.
What is a normal dinner conversation at your home?
We don’t talk movies or politics. It’s almost always sport-related. Since mom also played sports (KS Bijimol was a junior Asian silver medalist in the 800m) she relates to these conversations. Dad’s always sceptical about my technique and my approach. So, when I am eating, he’ll start, “It’s like the last 10 metres where you are going wrong.” He’ll slam the table mimicking my technique. Then, I stop him and ask him to let me eat my food.
Things are going well for you right now but you have faced tough times. You had serious case of appendicitis in 2018. You also didn’t have a great result at the Tokyo Olympics. There was also criticism of your father’s role as your coach...
I had complications in my surgery because my appendix ruptured. There was a chance of organ poisoning as well. I was on antibiotics for a while and it made it hard to put any stress on my body. I have to give credit to my dad on how he formulated my training programme when I returned because I wasn’t able to run 50m at that time.
The run-up to the Tokyo Olympics was very hard but it made me mature. There’s a saying that tough times make tough people and that is right. I remember I had to give selection trials in the rain in Bengaluru to go to the Olympics and I also remember how after I didn’t do so well in Tokyo, how much criticism my dad faced. There was so much pressure to work with another coach.
Those experiences have made my mindset really strong and helped my decision-making during competitions. So, when I’m in a tough situation, I just remember that this is nothing compared to what I have faced.
That criticism must have felt unfair?
You often see on social media, people writing that athletes just go to the World Championships, do nothing and return. Winning a medal in World Championships and Olympics is not a piece of cake. Athletics is not a sport which is played by eight countries nor is it an indigenous sport. It’s a global phenomenon. If you compare the magnitude of what Neeraj Bhaiyya has achieved in the Olympic Games, it’s equivalent to India winning two consecutive FIFA World Cups.
Wouldn’t you say things are improving? This year five Indians have crossed 8m.
The standard of Indian jumps has gone up. Earlier, when I jumped 7.99m in 2018 Federation Cup, that was a big deal. Recently, I spoke to one of the coaches in SAI, Bangalore at the Inter-State championships. He said, “My athlete jumped 8.01m in the first round and no one clapped because they are now used to seeing 8.20s and 8.30s.”
Anju (Bobby George) Ma’am once said Indians really do have the potential to excel in technical events and I can see it. Indian jumpers have moved on from that mental block of jumping 8m. Now 8.30m or 8.40m can be the new barrier and, hopefully, going ahead, 8.50m could be the barrier to break. I think in Asia, apart from China, no other country has produced a lot of 8m-plus jumpers like us.
What sort of preparation do you do a day before your competition?
Apart from waking up well in advance, the warm-up, and quick naps. I don’t drink coffee.
Why no coffee, Sree? It’s tragic that a Malayali can’t have coffee!
I can’t have coffee on the day before the competition because the caffeine will affect my sleep cycle but I always have a black coffee on the day of my event so that my body is alert. I avoid dairy products just before the competition so that I don’t have any trouble with my stomach.
You don’t have any parotta either, we believe!
Yeah, before the Tokyo Olympics I made this vow to myself that I won’t eat parotta until the Olympics. After I didn’t do well in Tokyo, I decided to extend that vow to 2024. It’s been four years and I haven’t cheated yet. But it’s hard. When my mom comes from office, she gets parottas for my dad and my sister. But for me, she gets only rotis. When we are eating, my sister will often grab a piece of parotta and wave in front of my face and then eat it just to tease me.
What’s the one thing that you always carry with you?
I usually carry a Rubik’s Cube with me. I have a theory that it keeps my mind sharp before a competition. I’ve been doing the cube since Class 8. My personal best is around 28 seconds. I really want to learn those speed cubing techniques, but don’t have the time. I don’t have a lot of superstitions in sport but solving the Rubik’s Cube might be one.
You want to stay sharp before a competition but sometimes we have seen that your performance dips between the qualification rounds and the final...
It actually happens a lot with me. At the 2022 World Championships, I did 8m in qualification and then I only did 7.96m in the finals. In the Commonwealth Games, I did 8.25m in qualification and then I struggled to cross 8m in the final. The same thing happened at the Inter-State as well. It’s a mental thing.
In qualifying, you just need to make the mark. In the finals there is the pressure of getting the medal. Our technique collapses. The pressure of competing in a final is completely different from qualifying. I think with more experience, I’ll get past this.
You’ve spoken of being inspired by Kobe Bryant’s Mamba mentality. But you are a fan of the Golden State Warriors. Is it the Steph Curry mentality now?
Kobe Bryant will always remain at the core of my heart. He had a crazy work ethic and approach to the game. Mamba mentality is one thing which I will always have in my heart. Whenever I’m feeling a little off, my dad will ask — ‘What about your Mamba mentality?’ That sparks me up. I have a picture of Kobe Bryant in my living room. If my dad allows me to get a tattoo, I will have Mamba mentality inked across my chest.
Do you have posters of any other athlete apart from Kobe?
I have a collage of Usain Bolt, with pictures of him from 2008 all the way to 2017 when (Justin) Gatlin bowed down to him after beating him in his last race.
You don’t have any pictures of yourself?
I’m not that great an athlete that I can look to myself. There are a lot of other people who I can look up to. I do have a picture of myself and Neeraj Bhaiyya in my living room.
You seem to have a healthy respect for Neeraj Chopra. Do you recall the first time you met him?
I first met Neeraj Bhaiyya at the 2014 Junior nationals. I won U-14 gold in long jump and, I think, he won the U-16 gold in javelin. I didn’t get to speak to him then. But even now when I speak to him, I am careful about what I say.
Even if he texts me to congratulate me on my performance, I think twice before replying. I get anxious because it has to be perfect. After all, it is going to an Olympic champion. But when you meet him in real life, he’s so grounded.
I wonder how someone with such a magnitude of achievements still behaves so well with fellow competitors and young developing athletes like me.
Did you see him win the Olympic gold?
Unfortunately, I left Tokyo a day before his finals. I was sharing the apartment with Neeraj Bhaiyya and Dr. Klaus in Tokyo. Interacting with him, you would never have believed this person was going to create history. There was no anxiety in him. It was just like he was in any other international competition. And after he won the gold medal, I kind of realised the magnitude of what he had done.
It has caused a paradigm shift in the mindset of every Indian athlete. This was a person, who is our very good friend, who won an Olympic gold medal.
We started feeling if we do things properly, we too have the potential to achieve what he has. That mindset was evident last year — seven athletes were in World Championships final. That graph will grow, I think.
You certainly have that self-belief. You invested your prize money to build your own gym, didn’t you?
I’d been planning after the 2019 season not to depend on anyone and build a gym. After the Covid lockdown, my dad’s brother bought a property and offered the space to build a personal gym. I got money from the state government for qualifying for the Olympics and invested all of it on that gym. It’s easily my best investment.
Do you think about winning medals at the Olympics or World Championships or do you think you will jinx it if you do?
My dad is a very practical person. He always believes we have to aim for the performances and, obviously, medals. We do discuss the strategies to win medals because after a certain stage, no matter how much we jump, medals matter.
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