As he walked away from the sand pit for the last time on Wednesday, Jeswin Aldrin honestly had no idea that he had made the final of the men’s long jump at the World Athletics Championships 2023 at Budapest.
Although he had fouled his last couple of jumps, he had leaped 8m in his first of three attempts in the qualification round. That’s a mark, that at all but three of 19 World Championships editions so far, would have comfortably taken the Indian through. But standards at Wednesday’s event at National Athletics Center, were close to other worldly. Seven jumpers made the final by attaining the eye-watering automatic qualification mark of 8.15m while Jamaica’s Wayne Pinnock jumped a world lead 8.54m - the second-highest jump ever recorded in qualification.
And as competitors kept making bigger and bigger jumps, what seemed like a formality for the Indian early on, soon became anything but.
It was only once Aldrin reached the mixed zone of the stadium that a journalist finally pointed him to a phone screen with the results of the long jump session. Then when he saw the little lower case ‘ q’ next to his name, Aldrin could confirm that he would indeed be jumping once again the next day.
He had just about made it, having come through as the last of 12 qualifiers but there aren’t likely to be any complaints. After days of disappointment and sub par performances, Aldrin had at last become the first Indian to make it through to a final at Budapest.
Earlier, as Aldrin traipsed along the boundaries of the arena down towards the stadium exit, you could hardly make out that there was a fog of uncertainty around his prospects in the tournament. Was he thinking about the possibility of being yet another Indian who had come to the Worlds on the back of an impressive season only to end up flattering to deceive? It certainly didn’t seem to be that way. With his oversized backpack and floppy bucket hat, Aldrin could pass for one of the many tourists blithely checking out the sights of this central European city.
Which is actually what he was doing. He stopped to watch the rest of the long jumpers take their last few jumps of the evening. He checked out Mondo Duplantis on the pole vault and with hands wrapped around his sides, stood by the starting blocks of the men’s 200m to see the fastest sprinters on the planet. It was almost like he was reverting to being a teenager growing up in Mudalur, Tamil Nadu, getting all giddy with excitement at getting to watch a school-level athletics meet for the first time.
Aldrin didn’t at all seem to be overwhelmed by the occasion or the situation he was in. And that indeed might have been among the reasons why he was able to live up to his billing.
He had come to Budapest as the world leader this season having jumped a national record 8.42m at the AFI National Jumps competition in March this year. This was the first time an Indian athlete has ever got into the World Championships as the world leader. The mark came with a special bib – Aldrin’s name was highlighted in green (everyone else only got their names against a white backdrop).
While he’s clearly a strong jumper, Aldrin’s ability to find a way to control any anxiety ahead of one of the biggest competitions he’s taken part in might be among his strongest qualities. That’s not been the case for most Indian’s at the World Championships. Murali Sreeshankar, who came into the Worlds with a silver medal at the Asian Championships and a jump of 8.37m, struggled with what he called tightness and only managed to jump 7.74m in qualification.
On the other hand, rather than being crushed by expectations Aldrin says he was enthused by it.
“I was really happy to get that bib. It’s a proud feeling that I was the world leader. But I didn’t have any pressure because of it. I just wanted to enjoy the competition. I just wanted to have fun, do a good jump and if possible, get into the world final,” he says.
Aldrin says he enjoyed soaking in the occasion rather than let it get to him. “I wasn’t nervous or scared or anything like that. The atmosphere was great, like next level. When you get into the stadium, you see the crowds and all that motivates me. I didn’t take it as pressure,” he says.
It perhaps helped that Aldrin’s had a bit of experience at this level – he competed at his maiden World Championships in Eugene, Oregon last year, where he finished 20 th with a best jump of 7.78m. Aldrin’s build up to that competition was less than ideal – he had been forced to give multiple ‘fitness trials’ by the national federation before he was allowed to compete. Even as he found himself having to prove his fitness this year too, Aldrin felt he was much wiser from the from a year ago.
“I was more experienced than the last time I came to the worlds.,” he says.
That was visible in his competition too. When he competed in Eugene, Aldrin attacked his first jump hard. Although a big leap, he ended up fouling the attempt by overstretching his foot over the take-off board. Spooked by the early foul, Aldrin tightened himself for his next two jumps and couldn’t come close to his best.
Aldrin switched things this time around. “In my first attempt I just tried to control myself and so I got an ok jump. Once I got that 8m jump, I thought I’ll go all out and try and get 8.15m (which was the automatic qualification mark for the final). Because I was pushing a lot more, I made two fouls in my next two attempts,” he says.
It’s not something that worries him. “I was hoping I could have qualified with the other two jumps. I didn’t but the jumps were there,” he says.
Aldrin says he actually thought of passing on his last couple of jumps – understandable since it’d been over a decade since a long jumper did not make a final of a world event after jumping 8m. He finds his confidence amusing now. “After jumping 8m, I asked my coach if I should finish my competition. And right as I said that, there was another jumper who met the direct qualification. Then one more got it and it kept happening. It was quite crazy,” he grins.
While others might have been all nerves as the standards for making the cut for the last 12 kept getting sterner, Aldrin seemed to enjoy it. He even had time to appreciate his competitors – specifically Pinnock who snatched the world lead from him.
“These Jamaicans have some kind of crazy power where they can just make these huge jumps at the World Championships,” he marvels.
And while Pinnock’s jump means Aldrin won’t have a special bib, Aldrin’s not to worried either way. “It doesn’t matter that someone else has that bib. It’s never something that’s put any pressure on me whether I had it or not. Now that I’m in the final, there’s actually is no pressure on me. I just want to enjoy myself, get a good jump and hopefully get a personal best,” he says.
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