For a teenager or a young adult who has grown up in an Indian household, there are things you learn to live with. Taking the top spot on that list is your parents’ scornful counsel on the importance of academics.
There is no escaping it. Especially, if you’ve decided to pursue sports as a career. One might think that winning a Commonwealth Games medal could bring respite from the perpetual pokes on the subject, but they’d be mistaken.
India’s ace long jumper Murali Sreeshankar, who was at the Sportstar National Sports Conclave in New Delhi, brings a first-hand account of it.
“When my mom finds me sitting idle, scrolling through my Instagram feed, she just stares at me and says ‘Why don’t you complete your post-graduation?’” he says.
“She is every Indian parent ever,” Sreeshankar adds with a smile.
For all the insistence, the 23-year-old gave in to the demands.
“I had plans for doing sports management. Studies are also a very important part of life. So, whenever I get time, I use it to do some kind of research work on what I want to do after some years,” he says.
For the moment, though, Sreeshankar is convinced that his effort and time are best utilised on another avenue in his life. His mother, too, would agree.
Following a silver medal at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games in 2022, and the subsequent finals finish at the World Championships, eyes are glued onto Sreeshankar for the Paris Olympics.
His current personal best of 8.36m would have secured Sreeshankar a bronze in Tokyo. It was also just five centimetres short of the gold-clinching jump.
Without mincing words, Sreeshankar is a medal prospect. In a year’s time, he will be expected to cover up those five centimetres. Even gain a few for the good.
But Sreeshankar is facing the pressure head on.
“It is high time we start aiming for a medal. I think 8.27m is the qualifying mark for the long jump (for Paris Olympics), and we two long jumpers, myself and Jeswin (Aldrin), are way ahead. We have jumped ahead of the qualifying standard multiple times,” he says.
And by his own admission, the best way to ensure that he meets the high standards is by competing against the best — at the Diamond League.
“We’ll be prioritising a lot of tournaments this year, like the Diamond League. Because, in the pre-Olympics cycle, the more we get to compete with top-class athletes, the better. That’s what we were lacking in the previous years. That will be crucial and that’s gonna be making a huge difference for us in the preparation for the Paris Olympics,” Sreeshankar says.
While Sreeshankar’s dash to the Paris Olympics qualification made for a riveting unfolding in itself, his compatriot Aldrin joining the race as a contender has added spice. At the 2022 National Games, Aldrin pipped Sreeshankar for the gold with a jump of 8.26m and secured a berth for the World Championships in 2023.
In March this year, Aldrin bettered the national record, set by Sreeshankar at 8.36m, with an attempt of 8.42m at the Indian Open Jumps Championships.
But Sreeshankar is not one who backs down from a challenge. He’s up for it, but with his own touch of composure about it. Nothing like a friend nudging you to push harder, he feels.
“We are in touch with each other. There is a very good friendship between us. We never consider ourselves like Conor McGregor versus Khabib Nurmagomedov (UFC fighters) because we have a very kind, good atmosphere among ourselves.
“(There) is a very good camaraderie. Whenever Jeswin jumps well, I support him. Whenever I jump well, he supports me and that mutual friendship or mutual interaction helps us rise together as better athletes and better individuals,” he says.
The contest between the duo does not end at the athletics track. They have a friendly banter ongoing as to who has the better social media game.
“When it comes to Instagram, the competition there is who has got better likes. Who has got better views. It’s a very good atmosphere when we are all together and we talk about a lot of things,” Sreeshankar adds.
The two long jumpers are the youngest among an Indian track-and-field contingent that has paved its way to international success. The 2022 World Championships saw seven Indians, including Sreeshankar, make it to the finals of their respective events. India then recorded its best medal tally in athletics — eight — in the Birmingham Commonwealth Games.
The plaudits for setting the wheel in motion belong to Neeraj Chopra, Sreeshankar feels.
“Whenever people ask me what has really led to the rise of Indian athletics, I always attribute it to Neeraj bhaiya’s performance because that has removed the mental block. His gold medal has caused a kind of domino effect, to be honest,” he says.
But success in the jump events was familiar to India long before Neeraj’s feat.
“Anju ma’am (Anju Bobby Geroge) won a bronze medal at the World Championships and she was very close to winning a medal at the Olympic Games also. I think jumps being technical events, we have the advantage of doing very well.”
Success of the past instils hope in Sreeshankar that he can emulate those feats. Better yet, he feels he can go one step further. “It was a bit unfortunate that we missed the gold medal (at the Commonwealth Games), but it’s all part of the game and we have to move on. The next target will be the competitions coming up — the Asian Games and then the World Championships, followed by the Olympic Games. So, what happened there (Birmingham), won’t happen again,” Sreeshankar says.
The Indian was back in action from an injury-forced hiatus at the Indian Grand Prix in Bengaluru on April 10. But the domestic competition only served as a stepping stone for his bigger ambitions.
“You get the good jumps here, and that will be an added advantage for us to go out there and compete internationally,” he adds.
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