June 10, 2022. M. Sreeshankar is seated in the Adyar Ananda Bhavan A2B outlet close to the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Chennai. His father and coach Murali had just ordered dosas for the entire family. Sreeshankar had just shattered the long-standing men’s long jump meet record – Prem Kumar’s 8.00m set in 2013 – during the qualifying round of the National Inter-State Senior Athletics Championships. But there was no fanfare.
One of India’s premier athletes, a potential medallist in most major upcoming international competitions, was left complaining about the choice of crispy pancakes on a regular, hot, summer afternoon at a busy restaurant. And nobody took notice.
August 4, 2022. Sreeshankar stood on the Commonwealth Games podium. The Alexander Stadium in Birmingham was up on its feet to applaud the 23-year-old who had just made history, becoming India’s first silver medal winner in men’s long jump at the Games. If he, now, decides to go back to the same dosa corner in Chennai Central, he might be mobbed for autographs and selfies.
It was during that very breakfast two months ago that Sreeshankar told Sportstar how he motivates himself when a part of the field is already off the blocks with good jumps, and he is yet to find his feet. “It is the experience which helps,” Sreeshankar said when his sister, a former triple jump athlete, whispers something inaudible into his ears. He grinned before resuming. “I have been in such position before in the National Championships and even in international tournaments. I only look to maintain my rhythm and technique. I know it will come. I just wait for the correct opportunity for that one big jump.”
That ‘one big jump’ came in his fifth attempt on Thursday – an 8.08 amid a tailwind of 1.5m/s. Ask Sreeshankar and he would tell you his fourth jump was bigger but ruled out by a margin so little that the breach on the footboard was not even visible to the naked eye. Pictures of it are already doing rounds on the Athletics Federation of India WhatsApp groups. AFI president Adille Sumariwalla shared the picture with Sportstar.
During the competition, Sreeshankar was seen having a chat with one of the officials after the attempt before checking the replays on one of the giant screens and putting his hands over his head in disbelief.
“It was really unbelievable. It was not even one centimetre. When I saw the foot planted on the board, it was a perfect take-off. With the new laser technology, we have a perpendicular plane in between the take-off board and the foul board. If we hit the board perfectly but our foot still crosses that perpendicular plane it counts as a foul. A lot of jumpers are facing this issue. I felt that jump was like an 8.10. I had even raised my finger (talking about his signature thigh-five celebration),” Sreeshankar said, wrapped in the tricolour after the medal ceremony.
Sumariwalla intervened, “It (the technology) started during the World Indoor Championships for the first time. There were a lot of protests.”
Bahrain’s Laquan Nairn picked the gold medal with a best effort of 8.08m, his attempt was equal to Sreeshankar’s, but his second-best effort was 7.98, while Sreeshankar jumped 7.84. South Africa’s Jovan van Vuuren settled for bronze with 8.06. India’s other competitor Muhammed Anees Yahiya came fifth with a jump of 7.97m.
A 7.99m effort would have sufficed for Sreeshankar in the last attempt to bring home the gold. However, it was not to be as he overshot the footboard limits once again. “I went all out and again I was fouled by the smallest of margins. Hard luck but I am happy with the silver medal,” Sreeshankar said.
The Indian jumper also had to worry about the conditions. Although it was warmer early on, chilly winds began to sweep across Perry Barr late evening and might have interfered with the athletes’ warm-up.
“It was a bit cold. I was struggling with my rhythm in the first few rounds,” Sreeshankar said.
Murali, his father explained, “As athletes, you must keep your body warm during the competition. He is now slowly getting acclimatised to these weather conditions, having participated in a few competitions abroad now. You must wear warm clothes and keep moving when the others jump when it is cold so that your muscles don’t relax.”
Sreeshankar’s win also exorcises ghosts of his past. A surgery kept him out of Gold Coast 2018, while he entered the field in Tokyo, after recovering from a bout of COVID-19. Sreeshankar said, “This is the biggest day in my life. This is my first ever global medal and I have been waiting for a medal for a very long time. I have been seventh at the World Indoors, seventh at the World Outdoors, sixth at the World Juniors, fourth at the Asian Indoors, sixth in the Asian Games, but this time I am here with a podium. Really happy representing my country at the Commonwealth Games. The competition this time was tough, but I am happy I could come back with the silver medal.”
But it still bothers Sreeshankar that this was not his best show. “It is not a great performance. It is far off my PB (Personal Best; 8.36m, a national record). But on the international stage, a medal is more important because that is what you give to your country,” the athlete from Palakkad said.
Sreeshankar will now be heading to Monaco to compete in the Diamond League on August 10. He said, “Probably, I will get a day off tomorrow and then get back to the drill. I am looking at the Budapest World Championships and then Paris 2024. This win really calls for a celebration, but it is just a small step towards my bigger goal. So, we will keep the celebrations short and work towards the bigger targets.”