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AFI grudgingly allows Sreeshankar, Priya Mohan to train with personal coaches — but with riders

"All I can do is to remind Sreeshankar to learn from his Tokyo Olympics roommate Neeraj Chopra," says a disappointed national coach about the mysterious no-shows of two of India's most promising athletes.

AFI grudgingly allows Sreeshankar, Priya Mohan to train with personal coaches — but with riders

Sreeshankar with his father S Murali


SS Manoj

Updated: 12 April 2022 4:28 PM GMT

Trivandrum: National record holder in men's long jump, M Sreeshankar of Kerala, and the rapidly improving 400m sprinter, Priya Mohan of Karnataka, continue to have uneasy relations with the Athletics Federation of India (AFI), the national governing body for athletics.

Even though both turned in impressive performances at the Indian Grand Prix events in Kerala this month, Lalit Bhanot, the all-powerful man and the Chairman of AFI's planning committee, and chief national coach Dronacharya awardee Radhakrishnan Nair are not convinced about them.

Despite being in the Target Olympic Podium Scheme, Sreeshankar is yet to join the national camp in Bengaluru.

For the 2020 Tokyo Games, Sreeshankar's father was included in the coaching team and AFI allowed him to train at his home base in Palakkad. However, the poor show in Tokyo forced AFI to rethink and they axed his father and dropped Sreeshankar from the national camp.

The tiff seems to not be at an end.

"We had done everything for the boy. But not all is lost. We still have hope from Sreeshankar and are confident he will join the camp soon. He is free to train anywhere but he will definitely miss the facilities, including a support team of masseurs, psychologists, and doctors apart from diet, nutrition. Of course he will sorely miss the ambience of the national camp. He will be fending for himself," Lalit Bhanot told The Bridge.

AFI had offered Sreeshankar and his family an offer to train in the US prior to the 2020 Olympics, which had also been spurned. When Bedros Bedrosian was deputed to train with him later, the Romanian left the country without completing his contract because he allegedly felt ignored.

Olympic medallist Denis Kapustin joins national camp

The national camp for both horizontal and vertical jumpers began earlier this year at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) centre in Bengaluru with Mohammed Anees, Nirmal Babu, Joseph PJ, Yugant Shekhar Singh, U Karthik, Abdulla Aboobacker, Eldhose Paul et al. Denis Kaustin of Russia, a 2000 Sydney Olympics bronze medallist and European champion, joined the camp last Sunday. Ancy Sojan and Pooja Saini are the two women jumpers in the camp.

However, Sreeshankar is not with them.

National chief coach Radhakrishnan Nair is clueless as to why the talented powerhouse is wasting time in Palakkad sans proper diet, nutrition, gym or support team.

"We're letting him off. He is mature enough to know. He should remember the results at both the Games in Jakarta Asiad and Tokyo Olympics. We tried convincing him to join but he is adamant. Now that Olympic medallist and Euro champ Denis (Kapustin) is here, what more can a nation offer? All I can remind Sreeshankar is that he should learn from Neera Chopra who was his roommate in Tokyo," the national coach told The Bridge on Friday.

Priya can race but won't be considered for relay team

Priya Mohan, the most exciting prospect in women's 400m, is also in a similar situation.

AFI is clear that the 19-year-old will not be part of the relay team but she can compete in individual races provided she achieves respective standards set for the Oregon Worlds (from July 15), Birmingham Commonwealth Games (from July 28) and the Hangzhou Asian Games (from September 10). Her performance of 52.37 seconds here on Wednesday in the IGP2 was far from the qualifying standard of 51.35s for the Worlds and 50.13s for CWG.

But the Bengaluru girl has achieved the entry standard of 53.19s for the Asian Games.

"She is improving in every outing and we are happy about it too. But the most important aspect is that we are not sure about Priya. As she is also not joining the national camp, we simply cannot consider her for the relay teams, which we have high hopes for," Lalit said.

The national chief coach echoed the same sentiments. "It is not about doping. No, not at all. Some of the coaches are subjective and not objective. If the athlete joins a national camp they fear that they might lose their prize money and awards which follow a international medal. Everyone wants fame and why should they share it with others," Radhakrishnan said.

The coach took the example of Annu Rani, the woman javelin thrower who joined the national camp after five years.

"The athletes should realize what is good for them. Annu is the crude example. Learn from it," he said.

The Sreeshankar mystery

Palakkad boy Sreeshankar, who will turn 23 this week, has been grabbing eyeballs ever since he set a new national record of 8.26m during the Federation Cup in March last year. Sreeshankar entered the exclusive 8m-club for the first time at Bhubaneswar during the National Open Championship on September 27, 2018 when he cleared 8.20m.

He did not sit on his laurels but worked hard at the Palakkad Medical College Stadium under the watchful eyes of his father S Murali, a former international triple jumper who has won a bronze medal at Kathmandu South Asian Games (nee SAF Games). His mother K Bijimol, a silver medallist in women's 800m and gold medallist in 4x400m women's relay in Asian junior meet, took charge of his diet.

In a fledgling career spanning five years, Sreeshankar has competed in the Tokyo Olympics, the Jakarta Asian Games and a handful of international meets big and small. He missed the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games after being laid down by a botched surgery for his appendicitis.

Sreeshankar trains in Palakkad - away from the rest of India's national campers in Bengaluru

His showcase at their modest house at Yakkara in Palakkad is full of medals and trophies of all hues and colours but there is just the lone international medal - a bronze from the 2018 Gifu (Japan) Asian Junior Athletics Championships.

Sreeshankar, who left medicine and engineering courses to concentrate on his athletics career, finished a degree in mathematics at Victoria College, Palakkad from Calicut University with top rank last year. A civil service aspirant now, India's best long jumper is confident of managing studies and training together.

The lanky boy touched 8m three more times – at Indian GP 5 at Patiala in 2019 (8.00m), at IGP 2, Patiala (8.05m) and here on March 1 at Indian Open Jumps competitions (8.17m).

Rivals catching up

But Sreeshankar has been hotly pursued by Jeswin Aldrin (8.20m) and Mohammed Anees (8.15m) this season as India's long jumpers started the season on a high.

In between, Sreeshankar took flight to Belgrade to compete in World Athletics Indoor Championships last week, where he took seventh place with a new indoor national record of 7.92m.

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