You’re listening to what Google Won’t Tell You - a sports podcast from Sportstar.
Welcome to another episode of What Google Won’t Tell You. This is a special podcast from Sportstar, a slightly quirky one too, where we talk about lesser known stories from the world of sports. We also catch up with athletes and other stakeholders from the sporting ecosystem in this podcast and the first step in that is this episode. Today’s guest is Tejaswin Shankar. The high jumper and decathlete is the national record holder in high jump, has a CWG bronze medal to his name in the discipline and is one of the most well-spoken athletes of his time.
In this episode, Jonathan Selvaraj and ipsit Mohapatra sit down with Tejaswin to discuss his showing at the Interstate Athletics Meet in Bhubaneswar, the road to Paris 2024, his ambitions in sports and how he balances life away from it.
It’s a long listen, so grab some snacks and refreshments and settle down for this one. You’re going to enjoy it!
Ipsit: Tejaswin, I’ve been tracking you for a long time. You are such a massive young talent. You pursued your studies in Kansas. You must have met even more outrageously talented young people in Kansas. Can you tell me something about your experiences in the USA and practising with other talented athletes across the world?
Tejaswin: The one big common theme that I learned over the course of 5-6 years in the USA, and which motivates me, is not being the big fish in a small pond but being the small fish in a big pond. When I went to the USA for the first time, in India, I set the National Record at 16. In a way, I had already reached my peak in India. If I’m achieving the National Record at 16, then there is really nobody around who can challenge me to reach the next barrier, which was 2.30 or whatever. In order to overcome that, I had to get into an environment where I could grow. Of course, at that time, I wasn’t thinking about things like that. I was thinking about getting a scholarship. My parents said I have to finish my studies, so I went. But in hindsight, it feels like just going there and being in the presence of Coach (Cliff) Rovelto, who is an Olympic medalist and world medalist, and many other talented athletes, made a huge difference. The average high jumper in our university at that time was jumping over 2.20m. In that group, it felt like it didn’t matter who you are, and you are only as good as your previous jump in practice or competition. It was such a competitive environment. Just a 2.27 or 2.29 jump might be huge in India, but the conversations we had about training and competition were nothing below the level of a Diamond League meet or Olympic final. The mental conditioning started there.
Some might say that I’ve done the conditioning, but I haven’t reached 2.30. But you have to plant the seed and water it. That’s what happened at Kansas State. It gave me the confidence to do whatever I can if I put my mind to it. Just having that feeling of being the small fish in a big pond. It was the desire and motivation to pursue something rather than having the limelight on me.
If I were in Neeraj’s position, I would have locked myself in a room, like he seems to do. I don’t want the baggage of being an Olympic gold medalist and the big aura around me. I want to stay separate. It’s great that articles are being written about him in between. I don’t even want that lifestyle. It would have hindered my growth as an athlete and a student.
Ipsit: Great answer, Tejaswin. The second thing I want to ask you is about multi-discipline athletes. They are remarkable, but only a few have successfully transitioned. Karsten Warholm, a decathlete, is now smashing it in the 400 hurdles. Dafne Schippers transitioned from the heptathlon to sprinting. You seem to be a glutton for punishment, going from one to ten. Coach Rovelto has experience with decathlon. When you were transitioning, it didn’t happen overnight. I saw the videos you had put on Twitter, sometimes on the hurdles, sometimes falling, when you scrapped your shin - tell me about this fantastic process.
Tejaswin: I think somewhere down the line, it comes down to the fact that the European system – we talk about how Europe produces athlete after athlete who compete at the highest level - they have a good ecosystem. I think a lot of this comes from that aspect of not specialising your athlete at an early age. If you look at their grassroots system, they have a pentathlon for really young kids. Karsten Warholm was an octathlon champion in the U-18 category. Slowly, they progress to the decathlon. They don’t take a kid and push them straight to the decathlon. For a small kid, the discus doesn’t even fit in their hand.
There is a whole process where, first, they want to become a good, fit, strong athlete – a general athlete. After that, they can become a sprinter or a jumper or whatever. In my case, due to the system or the way things are run and the development process in our country, I specialised early because if I am doing well, I keep doing it. I am breaking the National Record, so I keep doing it. I had no background in the combined events.
My middle school coach told me that if I wanted to be good at cricket, I had to be fit and strong so I could be better in cricket. I started athletics and got into high jump. When I wanted to get better in high jump, coach Rovelto said I should supplement it with other events.
In my first year of college, I was jumping 2.29. I had a couple of jumps over 2.28 – it was a great year with respect to progress if you measure it by how high you jump. The next year, I had a couple of jumps over 2.27 but not 2.30. I didn’t achieve it. Where was that progress? I felt like I was working harder than the previous year.
Already with Neeraj, there are so many people asking why he can’t throw 90m. I myself couldn’t understand why I couldn’t jump 2.30m. Then I told myself that we have to do something else, I can’t just stick to the same training. I wanted to do something else to supplement my progress in the event. He (Rovelto) said, “Let’s start with the 400m. You have a lot of energy and you say you aren’t tired, so I’ll tire you out. You can run on the relay team and become an alternate. That will help improve your stride length and a little endurance. If you’re jumping high, you’ll come in later, so endurance will improve.”
I ran the relay but felt there was something else I could do. Then he suggested I try the long jump. It’s similar to the high jump, but the take-off is in front of your body whereas in the long jump, it’s under your body. The mechanism till the penultimate step is the same, so I did that.
Then, to improve in the long jump, he said let’s try the hurdles. The three steps in between the hurdles, that shuffle, is very similar to the long jump. That’s five events. What’s left is the javelin. On the weekends, instead of doing core training, I might as well start throwing the shot put. I started doing the shot put. That’s how my introduction to the combined events started. It didn’t happen overnight.
Slowly, I was in the age group where European athletes are (around 8th or 9th grade). I was in my second or third year. I started with five events in the pentathlon in college, which was hosted just in my university as a transition event for combined events – hurdles, shot put, long jump, high jump, and a one kilometre run. These were events I was getting comfortable with, so I did that in my second or third year. In my fourth year, I thought, “I’ve done this, so I might as well do the heptathlon, which is the event for men.” So what’s left? The pole vault. If I’ve already done this much, I might as well pick up the pole and give it a shot.
I tried that and came up with the Shankar flop where I’m falling forward. Kuch bhi ho raha hai (anything is happening). Things started adding up and falling into place. I did seven events, and in the last year, what was left was the discus, javelin, and 400m. For the 400m, you only have to run. Only two events to learn. I started doing that. Overall, in the grand scheme of things, now shot put is comfortable, and there are three events left to pick up. Even to this day, I am lagging and have to raise my level.
If you say I’ve gone in a circle – I started doing the combined events to get better at the high jump, and now I’m completely invested in it. And now it turns out I’m neck deep in the combined events and not looking to get out of it. That’s where the transition stops, I guess.
Jonathan: What was it like competing in Bhubaneswar, you are coming from the USA. I’m sure temperatures aren’t that extreme where you came from. Your poles got held back at the airport. You had to get used to the Indian way of doing things. How did that work out for you?
Tejaswin: Poles etc. always get stuck. If Mondo’s (Duplantis) can get stuck, I’m just Tejaswin. The combined events teaches you a lot. Someone like Jeswin (Aldrin). He has jumped 8.42m but is struggling to put together a series where he can jump 8m on that day. He is struggling to put together six jumps of 8m. One would have got to 8.40. The common thinking is “you practise the entire year, we are asking just for one jump.”
If he can’t produce one jump out of six, how does one produce a peak in 10 events. That is the combined events.
There’s no such thing as a perfect combined events competition. There’s always something you **** up, always something where you could have had a better event in. You have to know how to deal with setbacks and how to move onto the next event. You can’t sit and brood over the fact that you ran a 11.2 in the 100 because you have nine events to go. The competition isn’t won or lost in the 100m, you have four (more events) in the same day and two in the next hour. How can you think of the 100 when you have such a busy schedule? You have to know how to overcome and move to the next one. The transition between each event is very important.
The hardest part is the rest between the two days because you have 12 hours to think about what can go wrong. Devil’s workshop kind of situation. You have time to think till next day that pole vault is your weak event. If you hit a hurdle and fall down then all your effort is gone. If you have 5000 points also, it will all go to waste. Look at what happened to an elite decathlete like Dan O’Brien -- everyone knows what happened before the 1992 Olympics. All these thoughts come in. Discus in known as the hardest event because every event before the disc is a fast and explosive event. In the discus, you are already fatigued from the first day. On the second day, you have to be fast and aggressive in the 110 hurdles and in the discus you have to be slow and long. You want a big push behind the disc. Most guys can’t comprehend the feeling of being long vs being fast and aggressive. They choke and put it into the net. You only have three attempts. If you foul the first, then you have two. One is a safety throw.
Everything comes into the 3rd. If that is fouled, then the whole decathlon is fouled. You think “It’s only the disc, why is it hard?” But it’s more psychological than physical.
The combined events teach you that there will always be challenges which you have to adapt to and deal with and adjust. So the goal is to get the biggest score you can. The goal isn’t to run the fastest 100m or jump the highest.
The heat is a separate story. The poles etc., you learn from life. You think, “OK, the Reliance Foundation is here, so they have their own pole vaulters, so I could ask them. I asked Aman Shah from Reliance, that if my poles don’t come, can I use theirs? Or I might ask Yamandeep (Sharma) what poles he has. You have to find an alternative to get things done. That being said, weather wise, mistakes from my end were right before the 100m. I was in the American-style kit warming up. There the weather is cold. There is a sheet with all these checklists for warm-ups. Full stretching. Physio was there so I thought, let me use that. When I got to the start line, the guy next to me fouled. Suddenly, I noticed blood trickling from my nose and wondered what happened. The event hadn’t even started and I was already heat- exhausted. Then, I realised this is India and I have to warm up accordingly. I have to adapt to the situation. That doesn’t affect just that one event but the long jump as well. By the time I got to the long jump, I was gassed out because the turnover time is so quick.
Shot-put is more of a power event. It’s not so tiring. You have to throw with force. After the long jump, I had time to rest. I sat in the shade. Drank some water. By the time I got to shot put, I was able to salvage a 13m throw. Then I knew I had a break. I went to the hotel room and rejuvenated for four to five hours and tried to get used to the conditions mentally as much as physically. Then came the question, “What do I do in the high jump because that’s the event I always cramp in.” The fatigue of three events comes in so what do I do to avoid the cramp? And two, what do I do to get a good jump. I’ve just had three bad – comparatively bad events. I need to find a way to get to 7500.
I knew after long jump, that I wasn’t getting the National Record. For that, I need to have a really fast 1500 or do something in pole vault. I wasn’t even thinking of that. I also didn’t think about the 1500 because I tried to delay thinking about it as long as possible.
I came at 1.99. Took a few jumps to get used to it. 2,20m. Competed in 400m, then I got some confidence that I still have the second day in front of me.
Just because of the nature of the sport, you apply it to life and try to find solutions. You try to find solutions for that time frame and keep adapting because that is the nature of the sport.
Jonathan: One thing you had mentioned was you were losing so much water throughout your event and it reminded me of Rahul Dravid’s water loss in that Test in Kolkata. Was this a particularly gruelling event or is this just the nature of the decathlon?
Tejaswin: Even in general, you lose a lot of water. Our body is made of 70 percent water. So, inside the muscle, when the water goes out, the muscle starts twitching and cramps start coming in. The functioning of your body starts depleting and however energised you are feeling, you will start feeling low. Water is the most important component. Water doesn’t stay if you add sodium or salt or electrolytes. You are losing Magnesium, Calcium and Electrolytes in your muscle - which keeps things up and running. Every decathlete has some totka (home remedies) to make sure they stay hydrated. A lot of this is placebo effect. One would say there is some science which hasn’t been discovered. I use dry mustard. I use a sachet of mustard or a shot of pickle juice. I’d spoken to coach and he said if you cramp in the night, add soap to your legs, wear tights and go to sleep because something with the bicarbonates in the soap helps cramps. I have no idea if he was joking or serious but I’ve never had cramps the next day so I continue to do this.
People adopt all these totkas to avoid cramps because that is the limiting factor. Everyone has their own thing. The heat, water loss factor - these are key. You have to stay hydrated. Once you cramp, it’s over. You can’t do anything. You might be the fittest, but that’s it. You have to stop. That’s why we keep drinking water. One guy was cramping so I was giving them pickle juice.
Especially during breaks, I go to the hotel and eat a little bit of food. Water was a huge component and it is a huge component which I am still struggling with to this day. I’m trying to get as much liquid in my body as I can so I can get back to feeling normal and compete at the highest level.
Jonathan: How exhausted are you right now? I had asked you if you are you free to talk and you said I’m free for the next one week. What would you compare it to – just how exhausted you are?
Tejaswin: A good perspective is if you look at Olympic decathlete. They do not do more than three to four decathlons in a given year. One qualifier event, one major championships and one of those meets where they make money. And really elite decathletes who are elite in individual events, like Simon Ehammer, might turn up in individual events, might do a long jump because that’s where they can make their money. You can’t make money from decathlon, because you are only competing in like three or four decathlons in a year. And anyway, who’s seeing them? Four people are coming to watch, of those four, they are your mom bringing a pole or your dad bringing an icebox.
The nature of the event is like you can’t do that much. In my case, it’s the high jump, I do that simultaneously. Use the high jump as my bread and butter and something to fuel my desire of competing in the combined events.
I’m that tired, I’ve forgotten your question. The next day you feel really tired. The problem is, the night of the competition you can’t sleep. Regardless of whether it’s been easy or difficult, I caffeinate myself after the pole vault. I need to drink Red Bull or something so my eyes are open. If you look at your schedule, you finish the decathlon at 8pm on day one. We ran the 400 at 7:50pm. At 8pm there’s doping control. Anyway, you don’t have anything in your body, so you drink till you get something out of your body. You get back (to the athlete accommodation) and eat dinner. By the time you are done, it is 11-11:30. The next day, race starts at 7am. You want to be up three to four hours before the race so you are fresh. If you sleep at 12am, you are operating on four hours of sleep.
This is what Olympic decathletes deal with. That’s how it happens at the Olympics because you have to time events for prime time TV. They have to run the 400m in the evening, go back to the village, eat and drink and the race starts at 8pm. They have to be up at 4 or 5am and warm up. Everything is tight on the previous day. The 400m race is the cherry on the cake. You have to have a strategy and a plan. By the time you get there, you have to deal with this, but because you are operating on those four hours, you start shutting down after the pole vault. For many people it is after the vault because javelin and 1500m are both in the evening.
What if we do all events back-to-back instead of three in the morning and two in the evening? This is what you have to get used to eventually. It’s better to do it in the 30-minute way because you aren’t sitting down and letting the fatigue come in. The last two events, that’s usually for prime time. Once the pole vault is over and you go home, you start feeling the fatigue of day and a half gone by and start shutting down. After a stage no matter who you are, your body starts shutting down. That’s when they have to do whatever they can to stay awake - like caffeinating perhaps. But once you get through the 1500m, you feel extremely exhausted but because you have taken all that caffeine, you can’t even sleep. You are lying down with your eyes completely open but sleep isn’t coming. At the same time, your body is also shutting down. That’s the worst time frame in a decathlon’s day. After the 1500m race is done, especially if you had a good meet, you go out and celebrate. The next two days, you don’t recover. You are already dehydrated. If you have a beer, then you are too hydrated.
You have just peaked emotionally after 10 events to achieve something. You are struggling for two days to get to that finish. After that, you just lose motivation for the next week. You don’t want to do anything else. You just want to sit in bed and watch Netflix. That’s why from a periodisation standpoint having qualification meets for combined events so close to a championships might be good for a sprinter to check their fitness but for a combined event athlete, 9 out of 10 times, it will not do them good because they have already peaked emotionally competing for two days in the summer heat. But if you have to do that again in three weeks, it’s asking for too much. Then hoping they do a PB and make or break a record is unlikely. It’s about probability and you aren’t giving them the probability of doing well.
Jonathan: Decathlon, like you said, maybe four people come to see. But that’s changed because of you. One thing I liked was you got all the guys to take a picture with you. That was pretty cool gesture. Did you feel some weight of responsibility to make this more popular? Is it even your responsibility?
Tejaswin:It’s not a responsibility but it’s just a choice from my side. I chose to do it because I’m passionate about it (decathlon). Everyone who does the decathlon is. Because they know how much it sucks. You don’t get the attention a 100m sprinter or a javelin thrower gets. Even if you don’t win but throw 80m you have people going, “Woah.” Here if you get 7000 points, most people don’t even know what that means. We have five guys who crossed the 7000m mark. Most guys don’t even know how to calculate the 7000m mark. But there’s’ a lot more to it than just the number.
I was talking to someone at the long jump in the decathlon. He was saying “TJ, till yesterday when we used to do the long jump, there wouldn’t even be one guy watching. Just our coach would be telling where your take off was. When you were clapping, a few guys were clapping. We got motivated by that. We started clapping too.”
He continued, “But the next day, again, no one was at pole vault.” But that’s part and parcel. The pole vault really got all of us together with regard to having no one there. Couple of guys said they are going to drop out after this event. I took it upon myself and asked, “Why do you want to drop out now? You only have four events left. Why do you want to do this?”
It was an empty stadium. Just two coaches. I wanted to make sure all of us come together and cheer for the one guy completing his event and vice versa. They already had it in them. We all just needed one person to take the initiative, to clap their hands and say, “Come on guys.” One guy claps, four will follow. I wanted to be that guy. What is the point of going to the USA and learning all that if you aren’t teaching this over here?
It came back as a boomerang. Before the 1500m, everyone knew before me that I needed to run 4.40 minutes to qualify. Right after the javelin, I was getting ready to warm up for the 1500m. I had the stopwatch in my hand. In the 1500m , I run a 200m, just to see at what pace I have to run the race at. So about 20 minutes before the race, I took the watch and got talking to a few decathletes who were going to the bathroom. They were asking me what am I doing. I said I was warming up. They told me this isn’t America and not to do any warm ups, that I could directly run in the race itself. I said, “No, I need to run the race in 4.40 minutes.” They said, “We’re saying, we will get it done. Don’t take tension.”
Before the race, I thought they were saying it as competitors, but I wasn’t feeling that confident. What if my race gets eaten (messed up)? I’ve run 4.36 minutes many times and I can comfortably run 4.25-4.26. but it’s a game of pace. Even if you run the first lap fast, the pace always drops in the second lap. So going back to the race - my first lap was 69 seconds. My second lap was 79 seconds. I was at a 10-second deficit. The 3rd and 4th laps were the same - in the 78-79 range. So in the second lap, I needed someone to set the pace. In my mind, I kept saying, “I need to find someone to set the pace.” And everyone was saying, “It will happen, bhaisahab” and constantly informing me how much the others ran in.
I started running. I didn’t even realise there was one guy behind me – Mohit who was cheering me on throughout the race. “ Chalo, chalo. Karna hai. Usko pakad ke chalo. Stalin age hain (Come on, come on. We have to do it. Keep up with him, Stalin is ahead). He is fourth and is trying to finish third. Yamandeep is coming first, go behind him.” He was positioning me and once I started to drop off, he got in front of me and said “ pakdo, pakdo (catch up, catch up).” At the end of the day, it was just a 1500m race. But after nine events, it feels like a marathon. Even the commentator was saying this.
For a couple of guys in front to lead the race so that they could pace me... that was something. They were running in the 4.30 range... And I was running in the 4.35 range. The guys behind me were already telling me, “We are finished. Don’t run behind us. We won’t run that fast.” That also plays a role, because they said if I run behind them, then I will be running at a 5-minute-rate and it will be a waste. The right guys came together and helped me out. It came back as a boomerang - the way I tried to help in the vault, they gave it back in the 1500m and helped me cross the finish line. At the end, one of them said, “When you have qualified, it feels like we have qualified because at least someone from our sport will represent India at the Asian level. Since we started, no one has represented India at the decathlon in Asia. This itself is going to boost decathlon in the country.” It felt good to hear that. At least, we are all on the same page when it comes to these things.
After the event, they all stood around and said we will talk about how we are training. I said, “We won’t just talk, we will get a picture clicked.” All the media persons were there and they said it’s the medal ceremony and we will get a picture with the medal. I said, “That’s the kind of picture you always get. This is the real spirit of the decathlon when everyone is together and gets clicked. It’s not my medal alone. If they didn’t help me in the 1500, I might not have qualified.” So I think that is what the decathlon taught me.
In the USA, they make everyone sit in the steeplechase pool and take a picture but here the pool was a little dirty so we didn’t do it there. But I still thought we had to take a picture together.
Ipsit: What a beautiful gesture, TJ!
Jonathan: It’s surprising because you were the only guy who qualified and they wanted it for you. But there was a guy who crossed 7000 and one guy with 6900 something. You pulled up the entire field as well.
Tejaswin: That is one point. The flip side of the coin is this. Yamandeep, who scored 7100, registered a personal best. He is a solid 4.60 vaulter. He only did 4.20 in that competition. He choked the discus. He had a bad 100m. Bad hurdles. In spite of this, if he can do a PB, then think what his capacity is. From that angle, you see everyone’s capacity. Gokul came third, he did a PB in vault but he did a 45m throw in javelin. I’m throwing more than that and I started yesterday.
So see how much scope for improvement is there. We shouldn’t just see them from the 6900-7000 point lens, because if they just tap into their potential, a guy is able to jump whatever 1.90 in the high jump, there’s no reason he can’t jump 7m in the long jump. He has what it takes. It is just a matter of channelling it in the right direction.
Say someone like. me. If I can run 10.8 in the 100m, there is no reason I cant vault 4.50-4.60. I just have to tap into it. Right now, there are some who are in the 7000 or something but I don’t think that it’s going to take a long time for those guys to get over 7300-7400 if they have the right opportunity. The guys at 6400-6500 won’t take too long to get to 7000. That’s how I look at it.
Jonathan: I was curious, Tejaswin. You are a numbers guy. Did that encourage you to get into the decathlon? Did that shape your interest in the decathlon? Because it’s a very number-driven, stat-driven discipline. You are always calculating. If I do this much, then I need to do this much. Basically is it the accountant we’re seeing or is it all just incidental?
Tejaswin: I think the calculation definitely happens after every event. But that’s something a calculator does. I don’t sit and calculate these things. But, I think this brings out the meticulous side of my personality and the preparation I do for the decathlon. I am not talking about training. I am talking about the preparation before the competition. You really need to have a vision on how you want to do this event. Before the decathlon, my sister said that it’s going to be very hot and suggested I get an ice jacket. I got an ice jacket but then you need an ice box. But then where do you go to fill the ice? What is the arrangement for water? You are carrying your spikes for 10 events. What are the nails you need for that? You are carrying four implements, things like the shot put in the 15kg suitcase in your flight. That itself is a 7.26kg. So where will you fit in your shoes? These are the things you need to prep for and consider.
After javelin, suppose they have the pole vault. And the pole vault isn’t at the right time, then you will have have two poor events. Then what will you do? These are all the things you have to think about and meticulously plan for when you think about how you want to do the decathlon. The real decathlon starts five days before the event because you are physically getting ready and also emotionally and logistically setting yourself up to be successful on that day. At the event, if you think now I need water, where are you going to get it from? The stadium is empty. Those are things you have to be prepared for. That’s where the preparation started for me. That side is more to my interest. The preparation side, being meticulous with the planning rather than the auditor bit of my career.
Jonathan: It makes sense there are 10 events, there are going to be a lot of logistics involved. Coming to that auditor bit. You did your degree in the USA, had to study your way through. You couldn’t half-arse your way through it, the way people do it in India. Even when you started your career, you had to make a choice between study and sport. You never fell into this binary argument. How easy or difficult was it for you? You don’t just see sport as sport and are not doing this just for a medal. You do it as a way to experience as much as you can as a human. Has it always been the case?
Tejaswin: I’m still in that threshold. It’s the same question, just a different verbiage. High jump or decathlon - I have always been a firm believer that both can happen simultaneously. That’s why going to the USA really opened my eyes. You are who your friends are, who your peers are. Everybody next to you, in your circle or who you look up to - somebody is a doctor and a lawyer and still an Olympic gold medallist. Somebody is a ballet dancer and her name is Valarie Allman who is an Olympic gold medallist. Somebody is JuVaughn Harrison who is also doing Biomedical engineering. Why can’t I do freaking accounting and high jump?. That can certainly happen. The people you look up to, you become like them. Here if you sit with someone, they will say, “ Bhaisahab, we have to go and train in the morning. We have to train at 5 am.” Why do you want to train at that time? If we train in the morning it is good. What will you do the rest of the day, we will sleep. Then we have evening training. If you stay with that mindset, then that’s what you are going to become. I’m not saying anyone is wrong, But I guess they learned from their seniors. Those seniors learned from there seniors. There’s no change in the pattern. I got really lucky that I got an opportunity to go out there and observe these people.
The fact is that they might be Olympic or world medallists but they still have to do stuff to make ends meet.
Somebody like Janee’ Kassanavoid, who was bronze medallist in the hammer throw at Oregon, or Brooke Andersen who was a gold medallist in the hammer throw at the Oregon world championships. They have to do meal prep outside of their hammer throwing schedules so they can make some money on the side and get some supplemental income. They are making meals for office goers. They cook meals on Sunday and then deliver it to their homes. They make good nutritious meals for four days and then they travel on a Friday and Saturday to go and compete. These are all the side hustles they are doing on top of that Nike or Adidas contract which is a bit of income and this other stuff is the supplemental income.
If the world champion can do all this, I’m still funded by TOPS scheme. So I should have a reason to do something else. These are things I picked up and got that nudge to do something on the side because otherwise the brain keeps working. It should keep working. If it gets blocked, I will start overthinking which is my problem. It can be a boon to be overly meticulous but it can also be a bane when you start thinking too much and torture yourself. I could do this as well. But you are just sitting at home. That’s why I need to do things on the side. That’s why going to the USA really opened my eyes and coming back, I am trying to apply that over here. I am trying to look for jobs, just something on the side, so that I can use my brain outside of this sport.
Jonathan: Was it always the case? Was it the case in India as well? You had to convince your parents that you wanted to play. And you were able to do that.
Tejaswin: With my parents, it was like that. My dad had just this vision that I can do multiple things, but his definition of ‘multiple things’ wasn’t athletics. It was cricket, after which I could study or whatever. Back then though, the vision was very different. The guys I looked up to went to camp so I want to go to camp. I wasn’t really thinking about what was going on at home or not. Dad would ask- “What is there in the camp?” We used to get almonds there in the morning. “Even I can give you almonds! If you want to eat almonds, why do you have to go there only to eat it?,” he’d ask.
But it was just a flex that I got to go to camp and do this or that. For some people, it might be really big but for my dad it was like that isn’t really your goal. You go ahead thinking of the goal you have in mind. Lot of times we get caught up in not earning our story. Especially if you come from a privileged background, they tell you you are privileged so you have it easier. If someone from a less privileged background can do it, then you certainly can. I think the more privileged you are, the harder it is, because mentally you have that comfort. You don’t have that struggle. Your parents would say we would study under a street light or we crossed the sea to go to school. They had to go through that struggle just to get there, that’s why they are successful today.
But the parents today are not letting their children study under the street lights or cross the sea to go to school. They say, in the morning, a driver will come to drop you to school. You had to go through certain things to get success but you won’t allow your children to go through the same things to find success. There is that concept of golden handcuffs which you have got put on yourself.
So how will you go ahead? I think early on, which happened after I went to the USA, that I have a privileged background. That is something I have to own. I grew up in a good household. No tension of food. For school, I had a car. I didn’t travel by bus. End of the day it doesn’t matter where you grew up. You have to put in the same amount of effort if you want to compete at the highest level or compete with someone coming from a not-so-privileged background. Their hunger might be more so you have to create that hunger within yourself. For them, it is a life or death struggle. It’s not for you. But if you want to compete with them at the highest level you have to have that desire and make situations in your head to compete with someone who wants to do it really passionately. What is that drive inside you? To awaken that you have to do something or the other. For me that would have been challenging myself academically or doing something on the side, just to get that rev that I’m doing this but I’m also doing that, so how do I put myself in that pressure situation?
That’s where that psyche started. By the time I got to my fifth year, I was bartending, I was tutoring, I was doing my own academics, writing my masters thesis, and on top of that I was winning the NCAA championships as well. So things started happening. I started becoming a lawyer as well. Everything just happened. It’s not about what happens or not but for you to have the strength to go through all these things and still come out on top. At the end of the day, you are a high jumper. You have to compete at the CWG, which happened. I think all those things came together and helped me deal with those situations.
Jonathan: You pick up things very quickly. Once you put your mind to something you are able to figure it out. How come you never chased your cricket career?
Tejaswin: Once this ends, there is JSW. Delhi Capitals is our team only. We will talk to them. I’m already doing javelin and throwing 52, so I’ll be able to bowl 140 at least. But realistically, cricket is still my favourite sport. But every time cricket is on, CSK is my favourite team. Don’t tell JSW. But since the beginning of CSK, I’ve been a fan. Of course because of my dad [who was an accountant for the franchise] but I have had that passion from the beginning. Cricket has always been number one for me, either to watch or learn or read.
I was talking from a news standpoint. There are a lot of cricket articles but you don’t want to read unless it is about Ashwin’s Mankading or if there is a debate. Like right now Ashwin’s comment that they are my colleagues not my friends. That’s not just about the sport or ‘who is whose girlfriend’ but more about what goes on in the mind of a legend who is at that level and he also has some sort of snub issue or insecurity in his mind or whatever. Those things are really really interesting as an athlete. When I open up the newspaper, those are the kind of things I like to read. If such a big athlete can feel those things, then maybe it isn’t such a big deal for me. Things like that just add up and give you confidence.
Jonathan: I look at points but you don’t. What are your goals in the decathlon? What do you think is a good decathlon?
Tejaswin: The reality is you have to see numbers but you can’t . The numbers do the talking at the end of the day. How your performance is, is how you get the medal and that is what is going to matter. But if you start calculating your points at the end of the first day then if you have a bad day you will just choke yourself because your focus is on the points and those points are going down. To make them go up, your focus should be on what you can do rather than executing what I need to do right now. The biggest problem in the combined event is you can get carried away if you have a good day or be sad if you have a bad event. Staying neutral is very important and that will happen if you detached from the score. If you look at your score after day one and say you have 4000 points and start comparing, it is of no use because tomorrow if someone vaults 4.50 you are not going to do that. You are going to vault 3.50 so you are going to lose the lead that you built up. What’s the point of looking at the score. It’s going to get evened out tomorrow which hasn’t evened out now. You can’t look at the score like that. You have to individually see what you can do now. The fact that I choked the 100m, how can I improve the next event? What can I do to make sure I am consistently in that range? Points and numbers can become a bane when you start thinking about it. It becomes an added pressure. I am usually here after two events and now what do I need to do, I try to keep it more qualitative than quantitative so I can measure the quality of my performance.
Jonathan: You can’t be like oh my god, at the end of day one you were 4400, so at the end you will get 8000
Tejaswin: You can’t be like that when you are doing it. Commenting, after it, before it and when someone else is doing it, is something even I do. He should do this or that. He usually does a 2.20 high jump but today he is only doing 2.15. It’s makes sense to talk about these things before or after an event. At that point, I am a spectator not a competitor. I love making those comments. I call up my friends and say he did this or that. That’s very fair.
Ipsit: You spoke about three of your weaker events. I would say it is the pole vault, discus and the javelin. Am I off the mark or on the mark?
Tejaswin: If you had got this wrong I would have lost faith in you. I wouldn’t have believed you are following for the last six years. You got it right.
Ipsit: Was super happy that you did the 4m in the pole vault. Jon was saying you did the Shankar flop. Javelin, you probably should discus with Neeraj. Discus you will agree, you will massively increase. The kind of explosive athlete you are, I see you doing really great in the discus.
Tejaswin: Bilkul (Definitely). These were all just things that show a lot of promise. Like you said you can see there is a lot of promise. In spite of these three weaker events, if I am able to score, we keep circling to the fact that if these three click how much more could I score. That’s the motivation for me. To keep pushing. The more repetitions you get, the more you start picking it up. It’s not about the strength or the ability to do it. Which I already have. It’s a matter of getting comfortable with the implement since its new. In the discus, I wanted to do better. I was relying on those points which I usually end up throwing. So I wasn’t too sad about it. The rules say no one can do anything to the ring. The guy before me put so much chalk in the ring. He said the circle is very fast so he wanted to put chalk to increase the friction. He was himself slipping in the two throws he did so I really don’t know what sort of friction he was creating. After the first throws, I told him, you cant put chalk. But he kept adding anyway. After the first throw, I went there, picked up the disc, winded up, ended up off balance and going over the circle. So that first throw was a waste. Now I only have 2 throws. I wanted to get a safe throw so I had something measurable otherwise my whole score goes for a toss. So I half heartedly threw some 29 meters or something. I felt at least I have got something. In the third, I cleaned the entire ring. If I slipped a little bit on the chalk, the whole decathlon would be waste. Despite that, I was still very conservative, when I got to the standing position, I yanked a little bit and it went over 35-36m. And then it was a little safe. In the discus I see a lot more potential. Javelin- I was pretty surprised with the improvement. I’ve heard so many strategies about the Javelin. When it goes out on the tip, it goes straight. If it doesn’t come out, you can throw with all your might and it won’t go straight. In the javelin, I came out to see all my competitors running like Neeraj Chopra from 30m. If you saw my throw, I was taking 7 steps right from the middle of the runway and letting loose. The goal was to get my tip in the right position. I was starting all the way back here. Some of the guys were here and went back. End of the day, the whole point is you are a decathlete. You want to get your three throws in as far as you can without trying to throw 90m. If you try 90 you will get 40. If you try 60 you will get 50. So you have to go according to that. For consistency, I started out back there so I can find my tip, take my seven steps, add some momentum and let it lose. Javelin came out well. Pole vault, that is where I had the raw ingredients. The whole concept of the vault is such a perfect event. I really love the vault even though I suck at it. It’s a physics problem. The whole concept is keeping your speed which cannot be constant in every jump. Keeping your run constant. The bar is always going to be constant - which pole do you use to get over the bar where and how do you adjust. In high jump, the crossbar doesn’t go back and forth so you. In the vault you can adjust. Your speed is constant. So you have to run in the same speed so which pole are you jumping on and where are you holding the pole to get the perfect amount of bend and flex to throw you over the bar? This is a problem which you have to execute perfectly on every attempt. For this reason you see elite vaulters carrying 10-12 poles in their bag so they have a pole for every situation. Lets say, it rains or there is a headwind, or a tailwind. They have a pole of different length, flexes and different weights. It matters at what speed you are running and where you plant, you get a corresponding and different response. If someone asks ‘why don’t you jump with a stronger pole’ – the answer is i can. I can jump with a pole that can get me to 5m. But if I don’t do that and I wont since I don’t have that perfect plant so the pole will likely throw me five meters on the other side of the pit. That is the challenge you have to navigate and know when to get on which pole.
That is the story behind those three events in this competition. The goal before the Asian Championships in three weeks, if I get there, is vault and discus - how can I make them stronger so that I can go and compete there and score big. Because this is where I can make quantum improvements and get my score to a higher level. In the other events I can make marginal improvements. Here I can make quantum improvements.
Jonathan: What percentage would you say you are in each event? You must be about 90 percent in the high jump, what percentage would you rate yourself in other event?
Tejaswin: Javelin, I guess, about 50 percent. Pole vault about 30 percent - if you go order wise. Usually if I am a 10.8 second guy, I don’t see myself going beyond 10.6. In the long jump, I’ve jumped 7.60 but I think I am capable of jumping 8m because whenever I’ve jumped 7.60 I’ve never found the board. I’ve always jumped from well behind the board. I think I have the speed and strength to go beyond the 7.98m barrier but consistently I can can jump 7.60 and 7.70m range. Shot put, I can. There is a lot of scope of improvement. I have long levers. It’s hard to put them to use. Put more push behind the ball. Get a little stronger upper body. I’m still transitioning from the high jump body. When that happens I feel I can put the shot further.
In the high jump, I don’t think I need to do much. In the 400m, I think there is improvement and it is coming. I ran 47 this season. I don’t think I need to run any faster. Running that individual event and running that in a decathlon is very different. Getting to that position where I run 47.7, 47.8 in a decathlon is going to be the perfect recipe. Day 1 is sorted. The real improvement comes in Day 2.
If you look at the score in the decathlon at the Tokyo Olympics , I will be in the top 5 and top 10 after the first day. But I make 4400 points on the first day. People make as many points on the second day which is how they get to 8800 points. For me, the second day is bad and I only get around 3000 points which is why I end up at around the 7000 points mark.
The biggest scope of improvement starts the next day. I ran hurdles at 14.9 which isn’t reflective of what I can run. This season I have run 14.2. Of course that is an individual event which is different from the combined events and the fatigue with which you are going in is different. But 14.6, or 14.5 is about what I can do. I can do hurdles fast because I have the speed and height. I’m not scared of the height of the barrier. I am 6ft 5”. It’s just the ability to motivate myself to run faster. If you have someone running with you who is fast enough, you push yourself. So, hurdles I’m not too worried about.
Coming back to the magical three events, the three musketeers - the vault, javelin and discus. That’s where the whole game starts.In discus, getting from 35 to 45 is possible because I have long levers. I have to get long and lengthy with my arms. I just have to get comfortable with that event. Keep throwing and get more experience with that implement. Pole vault is the perfect problem. I have a lot of interest in that event so really have to find someone who can coach me and get me to that level. It’s not a big deal to get to 4.50 or 460. I don’t need to be someone jumping 5m because I have the high jump to take care of that. My strength is there. I don’t want to lose points in the vault.
In the javelin, i have come to 50 and I think I could get to 55m. If I get selected for the Olympics and I throw 52m, I will be more than happy. No one really trains for the 1500m at the elite level.
Think of the spectrum. On one end, you have the type 1 fibres - which is the marathon runner and the type 2 fibre kind of athlete like your weightlifters or Usain Bolt. An Usain Bolt can’t be expected to run a marathon. A marathon runner might be the best runner aerobically but you can’t expect him to run a sub 10 100m. The spectrum is the same and you are in the middle of it. If someone says the decathlon is closer to the middle because we run the 1500m, the reality is that the decathlon is a lot closer to the Usain Bolt side of the spectrum since 9/10 events are extremely explosive. Just the 1500 which isn’t. The more you train for the 1500, the more you come to the other side of the spectrum. So you might get really good at the 1500m but you will be affecting every other event.
Back in the day, they would do two 45-minute sessions but now no one really trains for the 1500m. It’s taken care of by your training in the 400m and the speed endurance that you are doing for it. The rest of it, you run on your heart and grit! I’ll be more than happy to run a 4.30 race consistently but the biggest improvements will come from the discus, pole vault and getting the javelin to where it is consistently over 55-54m. Javelin is one of those events where if you go from 55m to 65m, there is a quantum leap in the number of points you get. Like in certain events if you get to 13-14-15m, it’s ok . But once you get near 16m you make huge improvements compared to the field because no one is throwing that far. In the high jump, the moment you get to 2.05m, you are making huge gains compared to others because 99 percent of decathletes are jumping around 2m at the Olympic level. The vault, the majority are jumping over 5m, so you have to get closer to the 5m mark so you don’t start losing points compared to others.
If you look at the table at the Olympics, you aren’t just a Tejaswin Shankar in a pool of 7000 guys. You are Tejaswin in a pool of 8800 point guys where that (7000 odd) is the amount of points they score after 8 events not ten. So to go along with them, you have to get to that level. I think these two events are where I am only about 50 percent or 40 percent and there is a lot of room to improve.
Jonathan: Do you have any goals, any thing that motivates you? It’s a tough event. You could have chosen an easier life!
Tejaswin: The biggest motivating factor, which I realised before the CWG or even after, was it’s not the medal. From childhood, we have that narrative fed into us by coaches or fellow athletes that this year’s goal is the Asian Championships and the Asian Games, Olympic Games and National Games. After going to Birmingham, I felt these things might motivate others, that’s fine. What is important to me is when I think about those things, I end up putting too much pressure on myself and choking instead of having that ability to get back and see what can I learn from this. From an academic standpoint, what can I do? How can I change my approach in this thing, to keep things consistent? When I focus on the process, then the result comes on its own. Something always comes. If the goal was to get 7500 points, I would probably have choked somewhere. It happened anyway on the first day. On the second day, I was thinking how can improve on the pole vault and I got help from Shiva for that. And once I got the 52m on the javelin, that was 99 percent of the battle done and now I can look at what I need to do in the 1500m to get the 7500 points right
Jonathan: What’s your small goal for next week or this week at least?
Tejaswin: Right now I have a water jug of three liters that I have to finish in two days. That’s my goal - to finish the water. That’s the best thing I can do to myself. This morning I went swimming. I asked coach what’s the workout in swimming and he asked me to splash around. So just small things. Get up, get the blood flowing. That’s what I can do with the best of my abilities. I want to think about Asian Games but don’t want to overthink about it. So just one step at a time. That’s how I qualified and that’s how I will get the medal as well. When it comes we’ll see.
Ipsit: I’d like to take you back to K State. What are some remarkable and jaw dropping things you saw there in the US? People with remarkable abilities and capacities.
T ejaswin: I think 2.36-2.35 we talk a lot. But when I saw him (JuVaughn Harrison) doing that for the first time live - this was my first experience of watching someone do 2.36 live. Videos I have been watching since childhood but seeing him do it live, even for me, I have never seen somebody jump 2.36. In the NCAA 2021 Championship, he did 2.36 or 2.34 something like that just to see the bar that high. My jaw was on the floor and was like ‘wow.’ It was very interesting. I know I have been doing this and I know how much effort it goes to do this and this guy just ran and does 2.36. Remarkable. For me it was quite an achievement.
Coming back to Orissa, the other day one of the officials was angry at me. We were warming up for high jump at 1.60-1.70. It was decathlon high jump what more will we do? After that, I came and raised the bar to 2 meter and started doing scissors. 2 meters is already above my height. I’m 193-194 cm something like that. I put it on 2m and did one scissor kick and missed the first one. That guy was looking at me like some joke was happening. ‘There they are doing 160 and here you are wasting time doing scissor at 2m.’ Probably that’s what he was thinking, he was looking like that only when he was taking out the cross bar. I said sorry. Then I cleared it doing the scissor kick and then I cleared it doing short approach. He was just watching me. This is still warmup going on, everyone was sitting. I put 2.10 and took a full aproach jump and made it. The guy comes and says why don’t you do high jump? I was like “what should I tell you, sir? I did.” Then the competition got over and the guy came and said I never got to put it so high. Because he had to stand on a chair to put it. He told me afterwards that it was very nice watching. He told me this afterwards but before, he was giving me looks like “who’s this mad person increasing our work?”
Ipsit: This reminds of what Neeraj once told me. There was a competition in Bhubaneswar and his throw was not going well. 80s didn’t breach. An official said, “Neeraj India’s pride is in your hands.” He’s a polite guy, he said to us that I’m trying man. This reminds of that.
Tejaswin: This happens in Orissa only.
Ipsit: They are very simple people, that’s how they show love.
Jonathan: I’m just wondering Ipsit. You threw shot put at National level, is Tejaswin throwing more than you?
Ipsit: I used to throw more than Tejaswin but I weigh double and I’m equally tall. I was a very non-talented athlete, Tejaswin is already throwing 13 meters plus. After watching him throw discus, I can say he’s a 40-25 thrower even with cosmetic changes in technique. He’s obviously an elite athlete, he knows what he’s doing best. But there’s a lot of potential in discus. Nobody can throw 13 meters like that. If he gets that left block going, there’s a take off leg in high jump, take off mode in long jump, even in discus there’s a pivot once the left leg blocks. He’s long enough to do that German kind of throwing without bothering about slipping. He can throw non-reverse throw like the Germans. He can just wing it.
Jonathan: Tejaswin are you a dancer?
Tejaswin: No I’m not but I’m taking notes. What sir said is correct.
Ipsit: I’m afraid while doing discus if my leg touches the rim there will be no throw. I have to do a safe throw. The concept of safe throw will be out. He’ll figure it out. Who am I to tell Tejaswin after playing inter-district?
Jonathan: Tejaswin, what are some of the things you wish you’d change in how athletics is run, how athletics is in India?
Tejaswin: I think we are already seeing a lot of changes with regard to certain things like - first of all, favourable calender keeping in mind big competitions and providing opportunities. I mean every problem is interlinked with another problem. Like people say - meets are less, someone should do meets so that people play. Now they conduct meets but at that time of the year when there’s no one to play. Only one or two people are in the start list and no one is on the ground. Somewhere coaches and athlete have that inbuilt mindset that I have to prepare for Interstate and won’t play other competitions. That has to change. What is the point of training for 12 months where you are only competing for one meet that can’t be good. That is also there. If I do good there then I can get a job. The risk-reward ratio is very high that I take risk for the job and once I get the job I don’t have any reason to do sport. So it’s like a domino effect. Somewhere down the line, it comes down to if you are doing sport for necessity or for passion. Our sport is like that. Unlike golf or tennis. People do for necessity to get a job. So what can you do to change it because you can’t blame that kid also. They are coming from such situations. That’s why its very difficult to comment on this on what can change. It’s easy to say that more meets could have been done in a better weather but to think about it, it’s a very big task in front of us. If I compare with Finland or USA, they are developed countries with developed economies. They don’t have hunger issues there. They don’t get jobs after playing. There the Olympic medalist is also prepping meals to earn. Here we won’t have money but there will be an ego clash that how can my kid work in McDonalds? I’ll send him to school in Mercedes. It’s a cultural thing.
The change that I think should be implemented is audience should be educated on whom to celebrate and when to celebrate. Just because an athlete is coming second in a decathlon in a meet doesn’t mean that is a silver medal. That is not a track meet. They should know not to overhype things. I think that’ll trickle down to the fact that just because someone wins a European competition, it doesn’t mean it is something for India’s pride. It’s just a track meet that they are getting prepared for. The ultimate goal is to compete in Asian Championship. This is how education will come about in and about the sport and they’ll start looking at it as recreational point of view and not for national pride. If these things come down and there’s a chill atmosphere, things will start taking shape. Ultimately, if people are little educated on what to celebrate, that comes from you guys writing good educational articles so people also enjoy reading.
I want that everybody should get the opportunity. People should play more. Have exposure trips. Just give individual athletes the freedom that they can go anywhere. There’s one Interstate annually other than that, go and play anywhere. If you want any help we are there for you as a federation. Considering the sport has now become a ranking sport than some sort of a qualification sport. If somebody is playing only Interstate, Federation Cup and Open Nationals, they are at a disadvantage compared to someone like Jyoti (Yarraji) who is competing at Interstate qualifying and competing in three meets in Europe at the same time to qualify for the World Championships.
If you give some meets to the upcoming athletes, then you’ll see a lot more athletes competing at all these marquee events utlising their ranking points. It’ll by itself create a buzz around the country. I think that is the way forward in my opinion. These are all very small fixes not some big fundamental fix.
Jonathan: What’s next for you workwise and gamewise? What is your thing for the Asian games now that you have qualified?
Tejaswin: Asian Games - I’m not worried about. The goal was to qualify and now I have qualified. Let’s see what happens in three months. A lot can happen. Not thinking about it. Immediate goal is to get ready for the Asian Championship.
Coming back to first question, In this ecosystem I’ve realised like when I was leaving Deloitte, they were telling me what are odds, because there you can transfer internally so what are the odds we can help get me placed in the Gurugram office. That I can do the same duties there. But after talking to some of my friends and family, there will be many hindrances. I realised I might get any time to train. Even in training, there will be lot of hindrances so they were, since childhood they asked me to study. But I chose to play. Now family is saying play, but I want to work. They were like, live your life, follow your passion. It’s not like they are relying on me financially. Carry on with what I want do. Eventually I’ll have to work and I can figure it out then.
For me just getting some supplemental sort of a thing to channel the mind is key. I haven’t thought about it yet. Once Asian Championship is done, Asian Games is done, just getting back to the ground, what can I do, can I study to prepare for GMAT or GRE exam so that I can setup myself in the future or study for CPA to elevate my credentials as an accountant - there are a lot of possibilities. Don’t want to over complicate things right now but eventually having avenues open even after sport tomorrow is something I will do.
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