Five years ago, he was a teenager duelling with the federation, the authorities and even himself over his future as a sportsperson. As the national record holder in high jump and the best in India by a distance, Tejaswin Shankar, then 19, was often spoken of as a talented but mercurial kid unwilling to work with and within the system.
Now 24 and a decathlete, a much-matured Tejaswin looks back with bemusement and insists all is well within the ‘athletics family’ as he targets Paris Olympics. As the multi-day event kicks off here on Monday, he talks to Sportstar in length about his journey so far and his own growth, both as a person and an athlete.
You are still the reigning national record holder in high jump. What made you switch to decathlon?
I had performed well as a high jumper in the 2022 Commonwealth Games and that sort of made me sure that I want to take part in the decathlon in whatever the next championship might be. Next year itself, I was able to do that at the Interstate meet, I did it at the Asian Championships and now at the Asian Games and to be able to do that is nothing short of a dream. I am happy I am able to compete at the highest level in my continent and that too in a completely different event within one year, so that itself is a big win for me. Whatever comes beyond that, I am taking it with both hands. I don’t have any expectations per se. Whatever I expected has happened and I just hope I am able to do what I can in practice in competitions now.
Food is one thing that every athlete talks about having to sacrifice. What have you given up in pursuit of sporting excellence?
Well, Chole Bhature I had to give up because I went to the USA. But I’m not someone who is very particular about these things. I eat whatever I can but in moderation. Sugar is my biggest weakness, my biggest craving is for sweets and chocolates and pastries. Honestly, it’s more difficult to control during events like these. At home, there isn’t that temptation anyway because there are no five kinds of pastries. It’s a fixed menu -- roti, dal, vegetables. At competitions like the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games, you stay in Villages where you feel compelled to fill your plate because there is so much variety. But if you can protect yourself from that then nothing really goes wrong. Outside of that, I eat everything.
You have repeatedly spoken about your maturity in the last five years. Has that also translated to a better relationship with the Indian federation? Because there have been issues.
Yes, absolutely but nothing was really spoiled or anything. There was one incident in one competition where I felt I should have gone. I felt I was fighting for what was right at that time. There are fights in the family also but it’s not like if I get angry with my mom, she’s going to abandon me or anything. Even before the Asian Games, I was in the AFI office to collect my accreditation card. I don’t think there is any animosity or anything. It’s just that at that time, I felt I had to go and in hindsight also I think I was right. I was able to go and win a medal for the country (CWG 2022). After I came back, everybody in the federation -- the president, Bhanot sir -- everyone was so happy. They congratulated me personally, so that experience was nice. Even now, before the Asian Games, they had a motivating speech for us.
You got a new pole vault pit at Nehru stadium to practise and everything. In terms of getting facilities, no doubts or problems?
Honestly, in that respect, I think India is the best. If you ask a little and especially if you are doing well, they identify you and with Sports Authority of India (SAI) also, kudos to them. I asked for a pole vault pit and within three to four days they were able to order it from ATE and get it placed at the Nehru Stadium. So with respect to that, I don’t have any complaints. I don’t think any athletes should have complaints about this because they are very proactive.
How do you plan to balance sport with maybe further studies and work?
The Asian Games is the biggest competition I have been waiting and preparing for over the last couple of years. I even left my work experience and came back to India and have been training here for six months and I don’t see any way I’ll be going back to the USA other than studying. I’m focusing on trying to become a better athlete and qualifying for the Olympics in high jump. If that happens, I feel Paris 2024 will be my last high jump event and after that I want to switch to multi-events.
How difficult is it to transition from a single event to a multi-event discipline?
It’s a process. If you look at it, five years have passed between 2018 and now. I started dabbling in multi-events in 2019 – it didn’t happen overnight. There are a few changes physically -- my muscle mass had to change, I had to get a bit heavier because I am handling heavier equipment like the shot put. Physiologically and eventually emotionally, you change. There is a difference in how one approaches an individual event that runs for 2-3 hours and something like the decathlon that lasts two to three days. It is an emotional roller-coaster. It takes some maturity and I have been able to learn that over the years. The medal at the Asian Championships was the cherry on the cake and it gave me the validation that I belong at that level and I can compete with those guys. That was the assurance I needed and I am very confident here at Hangzhou.
How important was the Asian Championships in preparing for Asiad?
Most of them who competed there are here in Hangzhou and so I have the confidence that I have gone up against them before. Also, both the Asian Championships and the Interstate before that were held in very hot and humid conditions and we will have similar conditions here. The fact that I have trained and competed in such environments means I don’t need to be overwhelmed by the conditions. I just need to stay hydrated and I am good to go.
Tell us a little about managing sports and education in USA during college.
I will give an example. Five years back, I was a first year university student. I had won the NCAA Championship, the biggest win in college sport, and I felt I deserved special treatment when I went back to campus. So one day, I went to the coach’s office and said, ‘I have won the NCAA Championship in my very first year, why aren’t you giving me extra attention? I was just a kid. I said, ‘I am an NCAA champion coach, what’s wrong with you?’ He took me aside and asked me how my grades were. I showed him and I had a couple of Ds and a C and B in my four-five classes. He asked why and I said, ‘Does it even matter? You called me here to compete in sports and I have won the championship. So does this matter?’
What he said next became a sort of life lesson for me. He said, ‘excellence transcends boundaries. It doesn’t matter if that’s sports or academics. It should transcend into every activity you undertake. It could be as simple as brushing your teeth. You should be able to do it well.’ That really made me think and since then, I have always tried to compartmentalise my life and do the best I can in everything I do. If one training goes wrong, no worries. The idea is to keep going and stay consistent.
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