0.13m away from an Olympic medal – Murali Sreeshankar's 'long' jump to the podium
If the performances in 2021 are anything to go by, Sreeshankar is just 0.13m away from a podium finish and winning India's first athletics medal in the history of the Olympics.
The first and only time an Indian long jumper came close to a medal at the Olympics was when a young Anju Bobby George jumped 6.83m – a National Record which still stands and finished fifth at Athens in the year 2004. She is 44-years-old now. A lot has changed since then, but no Indian long jumper has been able to come even close to replicating what she had accomplished more than 16 years back.
But, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics promises to be different. A new name has emerged in the Indian athletics circuit, someone who has taken giant strides through his consistent jumps over the past few years, someone who has the potential to dominate the world in long jump – Murali Sreeshankar.
Hailing from the southern Indian state of Kerala, Sreeshankar was born in an athletic family in the month of March 1999. His father, S. Murali, is a former triple jumper who has won a silver medal at the South Asian Games. While, on the other hand, his mother, K.S. Bijimol is a former Asian Junior Athletics Championship silver medallist in 800m and his sister Sreeparvathy is a Heptathlete. Athletics was in his genes.
Finding his feet and the first National Record
Sreeshankar started off as a sprinter and was the Kerala state under-10 champion in 50m and 100m sprints before making a shift to Long Jump when he was 13-years-old. This move to switch sports paid rich dividends as the youngster rose through the ranks quickly under the guidance of his father cum coach, S Murali.
A young Sreeshankar shot to fame when he recorded a jump of 7.99m during the Federation Cup in Patiala in March 2018. Not only did he manage to grab the media eyeballs due to this effort, but he was also named in the Indian contingent for the 2018 Commonwealth Games to be held at Gold Coast the following month.
Just when things were looking up for Sreeshankar, tragedy struck. He was forced to pull out of the Commonwealth Games just ten days before the event after being diagnosed with appendicitis.
The world came crashing down for Sreeshankar, who was dreaming of winning a Commonwealth medal for the country. Instead, he was stuck at a hospital for eight weeks following an immediate surgery and was then kept on a liquid diet for quite some time. The doctors said he would not be able to compete anywhere for at least two years.
"During the operation, I was hospitalised for eight weeks. It was not a normal appendicitis operation as the organ had burst and the situation was critical. I never thought I would make a comeback before two years – that's what the doctors agreed upon," Sreeshankar had then said to The Bridge.
But, two years for recovery were probably for ordinary people like you and me. Not for Murali Sreeshankar.
Instead, he was out of bed in a couple of months and went on to compete at the 2018 Asian Junior Athletics Championships in the month of June in Japan. Visibly weak due to the surgery and liquid diet, Sreeshankar jumped 7.47m and brought home the bronze medal from Japan!
This performance propelled him to the Indian contingent for the 2018 Asian Games at Jakarta. This was at a time when Kerala was facing its worst flood in years. Sreeshankar's grandfather was stuck in the floods and could not be contacted for days.
Besides, he himself was not completely fit. Even though he was struggling with his run-up, Sreeshankar went on to record a jump of 7.95m to finish as the sixth-best in Asia.
This performance seemed to have given him some confidence, as he went on to break the 8m barrier and register his personal best and a national record of 8.20m in the very next month. If only this jump had come a few days earlier, Sreeshankar would have had an Asian Games silver medal against his name today.
Thanks to his effort of 8.20m, Sreeshankar was suddenly a Tokyo Olympics hopeful. The Olympics qualification period was to start from May 2019, and the mark for direct qualification was set at 8.22m – just 0.02m more than his personal best. He was expected to cross it and qualify for Tokyo easily.
But, what is life without an unexpected twist?
A drastic drop in form
Sreeshankar's performance dipped rather drastically, and he could only register a best of 8.00m in the year 2019. In fact, he finished a disappointing 22nd at the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Doha with a best jump of just 7.62m.
Things looked to be falling apart for the Kerala lad when the pandemic hit in 2020. It led to the cancellation of tournaments after tournaments, and suddenly it looked as if he would miss out on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
One can term it his luck or whatever, but the Tokyo Olympics was postponed by a year, and the qualification period was extended. Sreeshankar had got a new lease of life. It was not an opportunity he would miss out on.
While the entire world went into a complete lockdown due to the coronavirus, Sreeshankar kept toiling at his home, with his father by his side. With a primary focus on technique, strength and mobility, the father-son duo kept their head down and started weight-training at their homemade gym.
Tokyo Olympics qualification
When the Tokyo Olympics qualification period restarted during December 2020, Sreeshankar was fitter than he ever was in his career. But, there was a lot of negativity around. Critics had already written him off; they proclaimed 8.20m was the best he could achieve; he cannot jump further, at least not under the guidance of his father.
Sreeshankar had just one thing in mind. To prove them wrong. To cross the 8.22m barrier; qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and to prove that he is capable whenever he gets a chance. The opportunity presented itself very soon.
It was 16th March 2021, and Sreeshankar was competing at the Federation Cup in Patiala. He was in the zone. He registered a jump of 8.02m in his very first attempt. The second, even better at 8.04m, while the third jump and fourth jump were recorded at 8.07m and 8.09m, respectively.
Sreeshankar was certainly on a song, but this was not enough. He needed to produce a moment of magic if he was to prove the critics wrong. And boy, he did it in some style.
For his fifth attempt of the evening, Sreeshankar jumped a distance of 8.26m – 0.06m more than his previous best and national record; 0.04m more than what he had to achieve in order to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.
He knew he had done it as soon as he had landed. But he had to wait for a few seconds, a few seconds for the officials to confirm. As soon as the official confirmation came, Sreeshankar erupted. He had not only proved his point to the critics but also stormed into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
"It has been a long wait after 2018; 2019 was a rough year, and 2020 was the Covid-19 year. For a long time, a lot of people had been saying 8.20 was my peak, and I took it personally. There was a point to prove, and I am glad I did it," the 22-year-old had said to The Hindu after qualifying for the Olympics.
Chances at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics
Sreeshankar's effort of 8.26m is currently the eleventh-best in the world this season. The list is presently led by Miltiadis Tentoglou of Greece with a best of 8.60m this season, while the American JuVaughn Harrison is second with a jump of 8.44. The third place in the world for the 2021 season is jointly held by the American Jeff Henderson and the Cuban Maykel Masso with 8.39m.
If the performances in 2021 are anything to go by, Sreeshankar is just 0.13m away from a podium finish and winning India's first athletics medal in the history of the Olympics. And he knows it.
Sreeshankar had reiterated multiple times how he has to jump 8.40m to stand a chance of winning a medal at the Olympics during a virtual press conference facilitated by the Sports Authority of India.
17 years after Anju Bobby George missed the podium by a whisker at Athens, India finally seems to have found someone, coincidentally from the same state, who can challenge the best in the world with his jumps.
It is a lot of pressure. But then again, Murali Sreeshankar has a history of coming up trumps under pressure, when it matters the most.