At the start of the month Tejaswin Shankar was faced with a stark choice. The Indian high jump national record holder could fly back to India and take part at the Inter State championships. If he matched the qualification standard set by the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) in Chennai, he might book his ticket to the Commonwealth Games (AFI had set this as the final qualifying opportunity for CWG). On the other hand, he could risk the defying the AFI’s mandate to participate in the Inter State, skip the meet and instead chose to compete in his final NCAA track and field outdoor championships – the premier college athletics competition in the USA.
Tejaswin, who graduated from Kansas State University last month, chose to stay.
On Sunday in Eugene, Oregon -- he won gold, becoming only the second Indian ever, after tennis player Somdev Devvarman – to win two national collegiate titles. But It’s a victory that’s come at a cost.
The 23-year-old from New Delhi, successfully cleared 2.27m. finishing ahead of two jumpers who have the third best jumps in the world this season. In doing so, Shankar who graduated from Kansas State university last month, also became the only Indian to have matched the Athletic Federation of India’s own qualification standards in the high jump for the Commonwealth Games, also set at 2.27m.
As things stand, Tejaswin would also have been a medal contender in Birmingham. Only two jumpers who will prospectively be competing at the Commonwealth Games in July have a better jump than him this year. And yet, Tejaswin, who finished sixth at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, will not be going to Birmingham.
After a selection committee meeting held in Chennai on Thursday morning, Tejaswin was not included in the list of 37 names picked by the Indian federation. The 23-year-old is the only national record holder to have met the qualifying standard who will not be travelling to the Commonwealth Games. Long jumper Jeswin Aldrin who had a (wind assisted) jump of 8.38m and a legal jump of 8.26m was also not included after an average performance at the Inter State Championships.
Tejaswin seems to have made peace with the decision.
“It isn’t that the CWG wasn’t in the back of my head. It was in the front of my head. Last time (in 2018) I came sixth. This time I wanted to do better. When I saw that the (qualification) standard was set at 2.27m, my only real goal was to match it. And once that happened I was satisfied because I’d done what I could. The rest is not in my hands so why should I worry,” he says.
The reason Shankar was not considered is ostensibly that he had made his jump in the USA and not at the Inter State which the AFI had determined would be the last selection trial for the Commonwealth Games.
“Mr Shankar did not want to be selected. Mr Shankar did not ask to be exempted from the Inter State Championships. He did not take permission from us before he competed in the USA. Mr Shankar did not reso,” AFI president Adille Sumariwalla said in a press conference after the announcement.
“We allowed only three players to not participate in the Inter-State Senior Athletics Championships in Chennai - Neeraj (Chopra), Seema (Punia) and (Avinash) Sable. “It was clearly mentioned on the website this was the last event where one could try to register the qualification standard for the Commonwealth Games and Senior World Athletics Championships.”
However while Shankar’s mark in the USA will not be considered for selection, discus thrower Seema Punia has been included in the squad despite not having met the qualification standard (she has a best this season of 55.97m as against the qualification standard of 58m) She will be included in the team provided she secures the qualification standard at a competition in Chula Vista in the USA where she is training.
Tejaswin has been through this drill before. Back in 2018, in his first year of college, he was told to come back to India and match the CWG qualification standard at the Federation Cup in Patiala. This despite the fact that not only had he matched the standard but also set a new national record of 2.28m at the Big 12 indoor competition in Ames, a month earlier.
The then 20-year-old had done so because he didn’t want to ruffle any feathers and didn’t feel he really had a choice. “At that time I still had four more years of the NCAA (athletes are allowed to compete for a total of five years in the championships) and seven more championships (indoor and outdoor) that I could compete in. So I thought I might as well come to India,” he says.
A zero sum game
At that time, there were also a couple of months between the Federation Cup and the NCAA championships. This time, the AFI had chosen the final qualification tournament to be the Interstate which almost coincided with the NCAAs’ dates. Tejaswin says he weighed his options and chose to stay and compete in the USA.
“This was my very last competition in the NCAA. And by last time, I mean last last time. Because some of them (his teammates) will return to their countries. Who knows when I can meet them next. Some of them will be gone and take up jobs. It’s not that everyone in the NCAA becomes professional athletes. It’s probably just 1-2 percent of them who go on to the next phase in their athletics career. Everyone goes on their own journey,” he says.
It’s that last bond of friendship that Tejaswin says he wanted to hold on to.
“For me the cameraderie of sport is very important. Haar jeet toh chalti rehti hai. (winning and losing happens all the time). I won gold with a 2.27m jump. But (eventual silver medalist) Darius (Carbin) did a 2.30m jump just a couple of weeks ago. He jumped 2.24 today but that doesn’t define him as an athlete. That’s not the limit of his capability. It isn’t that he is a 2.24m jumper. He is a 2.30m plus jumper. Just because he couldn’t do it and I won doesn’t mean I’ll go around saying I’m the best; I’m the champion. After the competition, Darius came up to me and said, ‘Hey man I want you to meet my parents’. That made me much happier than that piece of hardware I was wearing around my neck. That bond of sportsmanship lasts a lifetime and it transcends boundaries of sport and countries. According to me that’s why sport is so important. We can appreciate each other for their talent and as human beings and not just limit ourself to who won what and who beat whom,” he says.
If there is any regret, Tejaswin says it is for the fact that the choice between returning to India or competing in the USA became a zero sum game.
“When I came to the USA for the first time, it was because I wanted to become a better athlete. It wasn’t so that I could compete for the rest of my life in the collegiate system. In the end, I have to represent India. I came here so that I could train under some of the best coaches (His coach at Kansas, Cliff Rovelto, has coached 16 Olympians and 3 Olympic medallists in the high jump) and best facilities at nobody’s cost. The goal was to get better in 4-5 years. Its easy to talk about having long term perspective but you have to do something in those 4-5 years as well. Unfortunately by the end, it became about whether I will come for this competition or that. That was the sad part of the story,” says Tejaswin whose National Record of 2.29m was also set in the USA.
Tejaswin can’t help but compare his situation to some of his compatriots at University. “I have teammates from New Zealand and Australia. Those countries have their own nationals but the guys there know the kind of standard in the NCAA . They know the NCAA championship has a much higher standard than the New Zealand nationals. So they make it very clear that if you meet the standard we have set, then you will represent us. And the thing is that athletics is an objective sport. There are actually numbers that determine how good you are. Will something change if I’m in front of you? Will I suddenly jump better?” he wonders.
Tejaswin struggles to understand why those in positions of power don’t recognise the quality of the field in the NCAA.
“It’s sometimes portrayed in India that the NCAAs are like a university level meet that you can show up for and win. I’ve had people questioning whether it’s even ratified. If you follow the NCAA you know how high the standard is (the winner of all but two (javelin throw and long jump) mens events at Eugene would have won gold in Chennai and 10 would have been new national records). You can compare the quality of this meet to the Commonwealth or Olympic games. It’s right up there. So it really blows my mind when people say yeh to aise hi hai. College meet hai. (It’s just another college meet)”
‘Missing an atmosphere of belonging’
“Ultimately the goal for any athlete is to perform well at an international competition. But training for it is just one part of preparation. A lot of it is also about whether people can make you feel that you belong. It’s about letting you know that ‘Everything is OK. You do your stuff we will take care of the logistics. Ultimately we want you to succeed and we will do what it takes to make that happen.’ That’s the atmosphere created in other countries and the kids do well because of it. They perform here and they perform in international competitions as well. There’s no pressure outside of the competition. You aren’t thinking that we don’t perform in this specific competition we won’t get a chance to compete or that action will be taken against you. That feeling doesn’t happen in India right now,” he says.
Despite all that’s happened, Tejaswin says he’s grateful for where he is.
“Maybe in the past it wouldn’t have been this way. I would have been reading the news everyday. I’d be trying to see who is talking about me. Will I go or won’t I go. Now, it makes no difference to me. I felt I gave more than I thought I could. I met the standard they had given. Now there are no regrets. I’m just really happy with what I’ve done,” he says.
Plan B – the Decathlon
Tejaswin’s training continued after the NCAA championships, on the chance that he would be included in the team. However, he had also set plans for what he would do if he wasn’t.
At the start of the season, he had been preparing for his first decathlon – something that he had wanted to complete in his final year of university. “I wanted to get a decathlon under my belt but also have a crack at the national record in it as well,” he says.
He finally made his debut in the decathlon at the Big 12 Conference in May where he finished with 7592 points – the highest score by an Indian in 11 years and just just 66 points away from the national record.
“To be honest after the Big 12, I had peaked emotionally. At that time, I knew the Asian Games had been postponed and qualification for the Commonwealth Games was up in the air. My goal for the season had been to do the decathlon and post a good score. After I had accomplished that, I thought I was done for the season,” he says.
A few weeks have passed since and Tejaswin now thinks he’s up for another shot at that national record.
“Initially the plan was to hit the qualification standard in the decathlon for the Asian Games which I did and then try for a record there. But with the Asiad cancelled, I have room for another decathlon. I’ll try to compete at the Indian Open nationals in September and do a decathlon there. I’ll try for a record there as well. That will probably bring me a sense of closure. Chain ki saans ho jayegi. (I’ll be able to breath a little freely),” he says.
For now though, he still has a lot on his plate. He has to clear his college apartment and zero in on a place to stay which will be closer to the full time job he’s planning on doing in Kansas City. Now that he’s out of university, he will have to find another place to train as well. He would have liked to go to the Commonwealth Games, but life, he says, is too busy for him to have too many regrets.
“I couldn’t have been happier than I am right now. We are always trying to see we can do this or we can do that. We don’t ever take a step back and appreciate what we have accomplished already. I’ve made that mistake in the past but I’ve learned from it. This time I’m just going sit back, relax. I’m going to check every nice post on my Instagram every day and I’m going read every comment on Twitter. I’ll like all of them as well. I will watch videos of myself jumping ten times. I’ll do all of that rather than worry about who is saying what about whether I’m going to be selected or not. Because I’m in a very happy place right now.”
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