For most Indian track and field athletes, Asian Games may be the biggest test ahead but for national record holder in high jumper- Tejaswin Shankar - the next few months is also about grappling with complicated trigonometric formulae and going through never ending pages of Cold War as part of the modern history curriculum. A student at the Kansas University pursuing a degree in business administration, Shankar needs to have a close eye on his academic grades as much on his jumps to continue with his scholarship program.
The nineteen year, considered as one of India’s brightest medal hopes in track and field in the coming years, has been a revelation in his maiden year at the University athletics circuit in the USA and heads into the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) championship in Eugene, Oregon, as the strongest contender for a gold medal. He had jumped 2.29 metres in an athletics meet at Texas last month bettering his own personal best and Indian national record of 2.28 m which he had achieved in the Federation Cup. “I go into the NCAA championship as the favourite since no one has touched 2.29 m this season but I do not want to put pressure on myself. I go there with no expectation. A medal will be a huge boost to my confidence because the college circuit in the USA is highly competitive and it has been the stepping stone for future world champions in several athletics disciplines,’’ says Shankar.
The last one year has been a challenge time for the youngster as the high jumper had to do the juggling act between maintaining attendance, score academic points and excel on the athletics arena. "Despite being tough, it prepares you to become an all-round person because your life is not solely dependent on how you perform on the field. There are neither waivers in attendance nor leeway in examinations if you have represented the country in any events. I thought I had managed to kiss mathematics and history goodbye after my school but they continue to haunt me in Kansas. I have to study mathematics, economics and world history before I major in finance and accounts," adds Shankar whose greatest regret about moving away from India is not being able to gorge on chole bature and playing cricket. But the passion for cricket for the former fast bowler continues and the ten and a half hour time difference proved no hindrance for him to follow ball by ball commentary of all the IPL games.
A prodigious talent hailing from New Delhi, the youngster first caught the imagination when he broke the 12 year old senior national record during a junior meet in Coimbatore in 2016. The 17-year-old was destined for greater glories and continued to raise the bar. "The Commonwealth Games was disappointing where I finished sixth. I made it to the final and was overawed by the occasion," adds Shankar who is aiming to reach the 2.30m this year. "There is the Asian Games this year but my long term goal is the World Championship next year in Doha. I am not someone who is very obsessed with my current personal bests as I want to give myself time to improve without suffering injuries. After all, this is what I am going to do for the next fifteen years of my life, so I have time on my hand. Even my coaches have told me to not overwork. They insist that I lead a life of a normal nineteen year old college going kid with occasional night outs to ensure there are no burn outs-mentally and physically. So during the off season, I want to give my body a rest and not madly chase records."
The scholarship to Kansas University ensured Shankar could pick the brains of the world’s most renowned high jump coaches. Cliff Rovelto trained some of the world’s best high jumpers and now works closely with Shankar. Eric Kynard, 2012 silver medallist at the London Olympics, also trains alongside the Indian and is at hand to pass on handy tips. "These are some of the people whose techniques and training methods I used to follow on you tube. Now to be actually receiving training from them personally is a surreal experience. I still remember the first time, I got a call on my mobile from these legends asking me about my jumps. I went blank when they introduced themselves," remembers Shankar. "They are not intrusive and do not force any changes on the technique. They will respond and guide you only if you come to them with any problem. In the last few months, I have tweaked my technique dropping both my hands during take-off which has helped me to gain more height compared to the jumps when I used a solitary hand. The focus now is to work on my landing. Currently, I tend to land on my neck rather than on my shoulder, making me prone to injuries."
But the trickiest part for Shankar in the coming weeks along with working on his approach and jump, will be to work on his travel schedules. With the inter-state athletics meet scheduled in Guwahati next month, the high jumper will have to undertake a 24-hour journey from the USA to attend it. Even before the Asian Games, he might need to train in India for a couple of days before heading to Jakarta. More than the jet lags which play havoc with the body, Shankar is also concerned about the attendance in college but he is confident of handling these challenges.
Shankar has fought tougher battles like losing his father to Leukemia which put his athletics future under cloud. But backed by a supporting mother, he came back putting in greater effort. When he sustained a serious injury due to a freak road accident on the eve of the junior world championship, he was forced to take a break from high jump. He used this time to focus on fitness and bounced back in style creating a new senior national record.
Academic pressures at the Kansas University is a trade-off that Shankar had to make to ensure he receives world class training facilities. And he is confident of raising the bar both in his semester grades as well as his jumps keeping in mind his ultimate aim of an Olympic medal.
Updated Date: May 30, 2018 20:04:27 IST