On February 24 this year, 19-year-old Tejaswin Shankar set a new high jump national record, leaping 2.28 metres, bettering his own mark of 2.26m, a national record set two years ago.
On March 7, at the Federation Cup in Patiala, he repeated the feat.
Tejaswin’s performance of 2.28m is the joint best among Commonwealth nations this year. The 2.28m or 7 feet 6 inches mark is more than an entire foot above his own height of 6’4”. It is a mark good enough for a medal place at all editions of the Commonwealth Games ever. At the 2014 Games, it would have earned him a silver medal, a summit no Indian high jumper has reached.
A look at the performance of Indian high jumpers at the Olympics is also revealing. No Indian has qualified for the Olympics since the 1972 Munich Games, and no Indian has put up a competitive display since Bhim Singh at the 1968 Mexico City Games, whose mark of 2.09m was ranked 14th, tied with a German, a Japanese, a Russian, a French, a Czech and a Greek athlete. Since then, no Indian can claim to have reached such level of international competence – that is, before the rise of Tejaswin. 2.26m has been the magic mark to qualify for the high jump final over the last two Olympics, a milestone Tejaswin has already left behind in his mercurial journey.
A day before leaving for the Gold Coast, Tejaswin says from USA, “In a way, you can call us the chosen generation. Track and field was in need of Indian youngsters to break out and create new records. We (Neeraj Chopra, Sreeshankar M, Hima Das, myself and others) must be just lucky to have the fate to have turned up at the right time.”
“When Neeraj Chopra became the first Indian to break a world record in athletics, it gave a lot of belief to many of us. If somebody I know has done it, there’s no reason why I can’t be a world beater as well, I thought,” he says.
When an athlete emerges without warning to shatter previously standing records, fate is often invoked. Sergey Bubka, the legendary Ukranian pole vaulter who broke the world record in 1984 and then went on to break his own record 35 times, had ascribed his career to fate – when he was nine years old, a pole vaulter friend convinced local coaches that Bubka had the basic skills required and they should give him a try. If it is the anonymous friend who we have to thank for giving the world Sergey Bubka, it is Tejaswin Shankar’s mother who we have to thank for giving us this record-breaking high jumper.
Leap of Faith
Tejaswin is the first Indian athlete in recent history to have received a track and field scholarship to an American college – the Kansas State University, where he balances his training with a diligent pursuit of a bachelors degree in business administration. In terms of athletic training, he enjoys several advantages over most other Indians. The road, however, has not been always so straight for him.
“My father was strictly against me taking up athletics – firstly because there is no money involved, and secondly because the most frequent news that comes out of athletics is of doping incidents.”
“Around Class 8, I convinced my mother to let me train. She used to wake me up in the mornings, pack my lunch and send me off before my father got up. We kept my training a secret from him for almost two years,” recalls Tejaswin.
In 2014, a few days after his father Harishankar revealed his own tragic secret – that he was suffering from cancer and had only months to live – Tejaswin convinced him to attend a school meet. With his father looking on, he broke the school high jump record that day. Whether it was Tejaswin’s jump, or the love people were showering on his son, or the passion he had seen in his son’s eyes for years, Harishankar’s views changed that day.
A few days later, when Tejaswin was returning home from a CBSE meet having missed a mathematics unit test, he saw a box of pastries waiting for him instead of the storm of tribulations he had been expecting.
Harishankar might have had an active interest in his son’s athletics career for a very short time, but he had unknowingly helped sow dreams in Tejaswin’s mind for many years.
“My father always used to keep sports playing on TV. He was a big fan of cricket, but I was attracted to more unusual sports. I used to watch these sports on TV and then look them up on the internet,” says Tejaswin.
“In fact, I loved bodybuilding most of all. I was fascinated by Ronnie Coleman, Jay Cutler and the others. Even when I compete at multi-discipline events now, I am drawn towards the wrestling camp,” he laughs.
“Looking back, watching the 2010 CWG on TV was a turning point. I tried high jumps in my school field after watching Youtube videos, but it was completely without any supervision and without any high jump mat or any other equipment,” he says.
The best high jumpers in the world today, who 19-year-old Tejaswin rubs shoulders with, must find little to identify with the Indian record-breaker’s past. For example, Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim, who is considered by some to be the best ever, and Ukraine’s Bohdan Bondarenko, both have professional coaches as fathers.
Sweden’s retired high jumper Stefan Holm, another star in his sport of the last decade, was also coached by his father. Canada’s Derek Drouin, gold medallist at the Rio Olympics, was taught the ropes of high jumps in kindergarten.
“As a 10-year-old, I was playing the tabla, playing cricket and doing many other things, but I was doing them to have fun or kill time, not with any ambition”
“Before my coach Sunil Kumar spotted me, I was just a kid running about. I did not know about athletics then, let alone having any special skill,” says Tejaswin.
Breaking down walls
Though Tejaswin’s road to glory is an unlikely one when contrasted with the career paths of other great contemporary high jumpers, he knows he is luckier than most other Indian athletes .
“Since January, Ive been competing every other weekend. I have had 15 events leading up to the CWG. Most Indians have had two – the Indian Grand Prix and the Federation Cup. Only when an athlete competes more frequently will he understand himself, where his shortcomings are and get the license to express himself,” he says.
“It is impractical to expect a medal from somebody who has not had the opportunity to reach even his own best,” he adds.
Training at the Kansas university has not only given Tejaswin access to state-of-the-art training facilities and exposure to the best level of competition in the world, it has also broadened his horizons.
He says, “When I went to university 6 months ago and saw that Erik Kynard (Olympics silver medallist) was to be one of the coaches there, I had a definite fan moment. Kynard was one of the people who I had watched videos of earlier and tried to emulate in my school field. When you have someone beside you who has achieved such glory, it makes you think bigger. Interacting with him helps me set higher targets for myself.”
At 6’4”, Tejaswin’s physique gives him a natural advantage, but what sets him apart from other promising Indian high jumpers of the past is the explosive power he generates in his takeoff. His left leg narrowly brushed the bar when he attempted 2.31m at the Federation Cup, but the margins are fractional and the day is probably not far when the Indian high jump record will cross 2.30m.
The targets Tejaswin has set for himself would be off the charts if India’s high jump record progression was to be plotted on a graph, but even the American college athletics circuit is a tougher nut to crack.
On February 24 this year, when Tejaswin created a new national record by leaping over 2.28m at the Big 12 Indoor Athletics Championships in Iowa, he won only the bronze medal. “So funny that even after jumping 2.28m I finish 3rd. #NationalRecord,’ he had tweeted.
“Pursuing athletics in India is difficult because it doesn’t give you anything back,” he says
“Even a Ranji Trophy player gets a minimum salary, but even if you are a national champion in athletics, there is no prize money,” rues Tejaswin, perhaps echoing what his father had told him half a decade ago.
In our country where precious little is offered as support, it is the athlete’s individual support system that is often seen to play a big role in separating those who break barriers from the also-rans. Besides his mother, Tejaswin has always received this backing from his friends from school.
“I suppose my friends are shocked to hear my name in association with national records and medal chances now, but all of them know how hard I used to train in school, how I used to turn up early every day. The best part of our friendship, however, was that we never talked about sports. They never looked at me as someone who needed to be treated differently. That is one of the reasons why I could always live a normal life and not overthink sports,” he says.
In the current Indian athletics contingent, Tejaswin has found sprinter Amoj Jacob to be that reassuring presence. He says, “Most people, when they meet me these days, ask me about which event I am participating in, or how my mark will improve. Nobody asks me what I made for dinner yesterday or where I want to eat. Amoj and I talk about these things, because nobody else will.”