He is the national high jump record holder, has little or no competition on the domestic circuit, and is one of the most consistent and improved Indian performers across meets and countries over the last year-and-a-half. Yet, Tejaswin Shankar seems to slip under the radar every time the big Indian track and field hopes are discussed on the world stage.
Last year he became only the third Indian to win the highly competitive US National Collegiate Athletic Association title. He has a personal best of 2.29m achieved last season and a season’s best of 2.27m outdoors, both good enough to put him in the top 50 of the world. Not that the 20-year-old Delhiite thinks too much about it. For someone who only switched to athletics in the final year of his schooling, Tejaswin has come a long way in a very short time but remains grounded both about his own abilities and his life’s priorities.
Currently a second-year student of accounting and finance at Kansas State University in the U.S., Tejaswin is also perhaps one of the most clear-headed youngsters currently in Indian sports. In an exclusive interview, Tejaswin spoke about his immediate and long-term targets, his thought process and disappointments so far.
What is Tejaswin Shankar up to now, after the end of the collegiate circuit season?
At this point I am back home to spend some time and have fun with my family. But then, you can’t take your mind off something completely. I was home for three-four days but then thought I had to do something, keep my weight in control! I have started coming back to the track and doing some basic fitness stuff, trying to get better physically instead of going for the skills, which will come later on. I am working with my school coach Sunil Sir here for now.
You had spoken about altering your technique last year after suffering a serious neck injury. How has that worked out so far?
I think it was just after the Asian Games, and by December-January I was back completely and was able to start my indoor season and then go on to the outdoor season. The problem was I used to just let myself loose the moment I felt I had cleared the bar and collapse on the mat. And many times I would land on the back of my neck instead of the back of my shoulders, which is the ideal position.
Generally I have really good mechanics during the run-up, but in high jump, you don’t really see the bar; everything is about your instinct. But you have to finish what you have started and I had to practise finishing the whole jump, instead of letting go mid-air. You have to hold yourself till the end, but it’s easier said than done. It took about a year to work on it and bring it into practice, but I was finally able to get it done. I think I have figured out the right way to land.
Well, if you have been doing something for long and then you are asked to do something completely different, it does take time. Even if you know it in your mind, you cannot just go out there and do it immediately because of instincts. You have to practice hard for it. The overuse led to neck trouble. Tomorrow there might be some other issue that I might have to sort, but maybe, over a period of time, I might find a way to get near-perfect and that’s what I am trying to do.
You won the NCAA title with a 2.24m jump last year. This time you couldn’t defend the gold despite improving to 2.27m. Was it disappointing?
Not really. It just shows the depth in the field out there. It was also the first time I participated in the indoor meet this season and I could only manage a 2.2m that day and a ninth place finish even though I had a jump of 2.28m before that. The guy who won gold managed to jump 2.29m and there are currently five-six guys on the circuit who can all do that. If you ask me to compare it to world levels, the gold at the recent Diamond League in London went at 2.3m.
All of this just shows how hard it is to compete on the collegiate circuit and there are never any guarantees of a medal. People often ask me why do I bother with the collegiate circuit when I have already done it once, but I tell them I improved my performance but could still only manage a silver this time, and with the same field was only ninth indoors!
It’s wise to stay in that atmosphere, and it’s a really good one, specially as a bridge between school sports and going professional. The moment you turn pro, you have to think about travel, participation, managing expenses — it’s easy to say, ‘I will go to the Diamond League,’ but where will you stay? How will you get a sponsor? I really want to stay in the NCAA circuit for my four years of undergraduate studies and make the most of it, learn as much as I can so that I can have a gradual but long career with lots of peaks rather than a quickfire career with small highs and lot of lows and a quick end.
But the bigger, prestigious events are the priority for most Indians. If you are asked to participate in the bigger meets, how confident are you of performing there?
See, with a 2.28-2.29m jump, I know I can definitely get an entry to a Diamond League or one of the bigger meets tomorrow. But the thing is, if I cannot jump a 2.28 or so there, I won’t be invited to subsequent Diamond League meets.
At the NCAA, where I am competing, there is always someone or the other who is jumping a minimum of 2.24m. At the championships meets, there are folks who do 2.28m regularly. There is a controlled environment with enough support and competition to push you constantly. I would rather go when I am actually ready to perform at that level rather than simply for the sake of competing and claiming ‘I was there at Diamond League’ but not be able to perform at the best of my abilities.
Can we talk about the Asian Championships and the issue of compulsory trials? Was it disappointing to miss out on the competition?
It definitely was disappointing initially, but I was able to come out of it quickly after speaking to my coach (Cliff Rovelto, former USA assistant track and field coach and in-charge at Kansas State). Actually, the AFI (Athletics Federation of India) circular spoke of qualification standards and set it at 2.25m. By then I had already jumped that mark twice this season, once indoors, and also managed 2.28m in a championship meet and so was expecting I would be considered, solely because I had jumped the norm. But there were issues of attending the trials. The biggest takeaway from it all is that I just have to have better communication with the AFI.
I guess I need to speak to them and make them realise that I am not there in the US to move out of the norms set by the federation or seek any special attention. I have to return here only and I am competing in that system so that, at the end of the day, I can come back and perform for my country. I am there to learn from those people, specially when you have a coach who has produced so many world and Olympic champions.
I guess I assumed they would be aware of everything including the system in the US and how there is no leeway or compensation for sporting achievements in terms of studies during your undergraduate years. I need to take my exams and manage a minimum score of 2.4 GPA (grade point average) out of 4 to even be able to compete on the NCAA circuit, which in itself is highly competitive.
The best example is that the guy who beat me in the outdoor championships (JuVaughn Harrison) also won the long jump gold with a jump of 8.2m (the current Indian national record). That just shows how competitive the field is and how talented the athletes are. But somewhere down the line, I think it is my responsibility also, as the athlete experiences it first hand, to convey the message clearly. I haven’t planned anything yet, but I think I will meet them before I go back.
What about the World Championships?
As of now I have no plans of trying to qualify or participate in the worlds. I thought I would push myself and go to meets in Europe after the end of the US collegiate circuit, but changed my mind after a talk with my coach. I realised I had started my indoor season in December last itself and if I continue to push till the worlds, that will definitely affect my preparations for the Olympics next year. It is up to me how to make the most of the remaining period and manage 2.3m as soon as possible. Though the qualifying mark for Tokyo is 2.33m, if I do 2.3m in a few meets, I am sure I can be in the top 32 at the cut-off time, which should help me qualify through the world rankings.
How does your family deal with all of it?
The good thing is that since my family is not sporting and has no idea of the sporting culture, they don’t get involved too much or comment on the sports part of my life. It is great for me because there is no unnecessary stress and I don’t have to explain to them anything; they are simply happy to see my name in the newspapers for the right reasons. But I personally would also like to get grades good enough to help me in my future. I don’t want to use my athletic ability to try and find a job — athletics and academics are separate — and that’s what the system teaches me, that you need to balance the two, which is possible. A university friend of mine won the heptathlon silver at the Commonwealth Games last year, another won decathlon gold for New Zealand at the World University Games this time. When you see such talented people around balancing life, studies, fun and performance, it helps you become a better, more rounded human being. It also helps training with them around because, let’s admit, champions are not built in a day. These very same students will be your competitors on the world stage in five-eight years from now.
It also shows the support from their federations and countries. I also wanted to participate at the Word University Games this year, but I was not aware of the process or the follow-up with the federation. But then, kuch paane ke liye kuch khona padta hai . Abhi tak mai kho zyada raha hun aur paa kam raha hun (you have to lose something to win something. So far, I am losing more than gaining). But I think it’s a part of life and you should be patient, concentrate on the process rather than the results or participation and not expect too much too soon.
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