Around 6:50pm BST, Tejaswin Shankar took a break from his warm-up routine to look at one of the giant screens at the Alexander Stadium, Birmingham. The medal ceremony for the women’s pole vault was going on.
Tejaswin had unfinished business at the Commonwealth Games, still haunted by his sixth-place finish at the 2018 Gold Coast Games.
Roughly three hours later, as the same screen cast an image of Tejaswin sporting the widest smile with a bronze medal around his neck, other athletes took some time out to acknowledge his achievement. India had won its first ever CWG medal in high jump.
Tejaswin’s ride to Birmingham had been riddled with potholes.
He had to catch the opening ceremony from his home as his visa arrived only a day after the event.
Though he had achieved the Games qualification standard of 2.27m at the NCAA Championships in Oregon on June 12, his name was excluded from the CWG squad for missing out on the Senior Inter-State Athletics Championships in Chennai, the final selection trial for CWG 2022.
After a favourable verdict from the Delhi High Court and some last-minute drama, the Indian Olympic Association finally got the nod for his participation barely five days before the high jump event.
In the seating area on Wednesday, Tejaswin was easily distinguishable from the rest of the field, not just because of his grey ‘INDIA’ jumpers.
When the others were limbering up, the Indian was lounging in his trainers. When the others were stretching, Tejaswin was taking a brisk walk along the track.
While the others concentrated on performing regular jumps, Tejaswin crossed the bar in a fashion you would cross a hurdle, his left leg leading. He exited from under the bar using the landing platform as a trampoline to propel him out.
His first attempt at 2.10 was nervy, the bar stayed in place despite a mild contact.
At 2.15, after getting the crowd behind him, Tejaswin had a breezy landing.
At 2.19, the World Indoor Championships Bronze medallist, Hamish Kerr set an example for British champion Joel Clarke-Khan, Nigeria’s Mike Edwards, Shankar, and William Grimsey to follow. Eventual silver medallist Brandon Starc and Romaine Beckford made the cut in the very last attempt.
At 2.22, the field had thinned out. Tejaswin had company from Kerr (from first attempt), Starc (from second attempt) followed by Bahamas’ Donald Thomas.
The crowd was still egging the Indian on.
“A sport-loving crowd is something everyone loves, irrespective of where you are from and who you are. The competition started at 2.00m and people were cheering then as well. It is like a routine height. Nobody even starts there. It is written here,” Tejaswin said, pointing at a Birmingham 2022 banner, ‘Sport is just the beginning,’ I believe in that. It is also about the humanitarian aspect. It brings us together, everybody cheering for everybody. Who would have ever thought that a crowd in UK would cheer for an Indian? But look at what happened today. I want to relive this moment again and again.”
Tejaswin faltered for the first time at 2.25, dislodging the bar in the first attempt. After another failed attempt, Shankar passed his last attempt to go for a 2.28m jump. On countback rule, Shankar was already assured of the bronze. Kerr grabbed the gold medal as Shankar and Starc failed to make their jumps.
“After I made 2.22, I was waiting to see if Donald Thomas would make the bar or not. If he had made the bar, I had to attempt 2.25. Once I knew that I had the bronze medal, I knew I had to clear 2.28m in one attempt to challenge for gold or silver. I didn’t want to settle for a bronze medal. On some days, it happens. Usually, I make it happen. But today, it didn’t. But I have no regrets and I’m extremely happy with my performance,” Tejaswin explained.
Tejaswin credits Cliff Rovelto, his coach at the Kansas State University, for his success. He also dedicated his medal to his mother and Rovelto, who has coached 16 Olympians and three Olympic medallists in high jump.
“Rovelto’s contribution has been massive. Five years ago, I wasn’t getting a way to study abroad as well as compete in sports. At that time, Cliff Rovelto came into my life, and I got the opportunity to study at Kansas State University and train with some of the best athletes in the world. To train in that environment and stay there for five years and complete my Bachelor’s degree in Finance and my Masters’s degree in Accounting was fantastic,” he said.
“I want to dedicate this medal to him and my mom. For the last one-and-half months, she has also been running around with me to bring me to where I am today. As and when this interview ends, the first thing I will do is call her, show her the medal, and say thank you.”
Back in 2018, as well, Tejaswin was asked to come back to India and meet the CWG qualification standard at Patiala’s Federation Cup, despite matching the standard with a new national record of 2.28m at the Big 12 indoor competition in Ames, a month earlier.
“Certain things happened. Could have happened. Let’s not go there. In the end, I was cleared to go. Since I have been here, I haven’t told anybody about past problems. Everybody’s been really helpful. All those who came and were there in the stands today dreamed of a medal for India. Everybody had the same goal and hopes. For everybody to come together at the very end, was the cherry on the cake. I am happy with whatever happened, however it happened,” Tejaswin said.
Tejaswin, who has recently started dabbling in decathlon, wants to train harder and somehow make the cut for the Asian Games next year. Although, he was initially looking to participate in the Indian Open nationals in September, he has changed plans since. “I am not sure about the Open Nationals, but I am very eager to participate in decathlon. Going forward, I want to transition into a decathlete because that’s really helped me sustain my season. I started playing only in December. Training as a decathlete keeps you fresh physically. Most importantly, it gives you that endurance and stamina to last a longer time. There is no exhaustion. That’s my next goal... I hope to break the national record in decathlon,” Tejaswin, who made his debut in decathlon at the Big 12 Conference in May and finished with 7592 points (the highest score by an Indian in 11 years and just 66 short of an NR), said.
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