In just over two years since taking up high-jump on the insistence of his physical education teacher, 17-year-old Tejaswin Shankar, an aspiring fast bowler, has improved his personal best by 47 centimetres. Shankar might make batsmen hop, but Sunil Kumar, the physical trainer at his school in Delhi, has advised his ward to give the run-up modelled on Glenn McGrath a break, and focus on the gravity-defying Fosbury Flop instead.
On Tuesday evening, at the Indira Gandhi Athletics Stadium in Sarusajai, where the South Asian Games are being held, Shankar was up against Sri Lanka’s W P Manjula Kumara, an Olympian who has won gold at the Asian Championships. The final of the men’s high-jump was Shankar’s first senior international event, but he matched Kumara.
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Though Shankar and Kumara were tied at 2.17 metres, the Class XI commerce student of Sardar Patel Vidyalaya, Lodhi Road, had to settle for silver. Shankar had dropped the bar in his first attempt at 2.08 metres, a folly he blames on complacency, while Kumara didn’t have a cross against his name. But there was a takeaway for the youngster. He proved that he had the mettle to compete at the senior level and he also improved his personal best once again, from 2.15 metres to 2.17 metres, in less than a fortnight.
The decade-old senior national record of 2.25 metres is well within Shankar’s range, believes Gurbachan Singh Randhawa, the former Asian Games gold medallist in the decathlon. “The mark could fall within a year or two, if not sooner,” Randhawa says.
Shankar came to Guwahati fresh from his gold medal at the national school games in Kozhikode. From competing against schoolchildren, Shankar had to face the challenge posed by multiple South Asian Games and Asian Games veterans. His silver-medal winning jump on Tuesday not only helped him qualify for the World Junior Championships later this year, but also propelled him to No. 4 in the IAAF’s World Youth rankings.
Shankar, an Asian Youth Championships medal-winner, has also been very consistent. The only time he missed out on finishing on the podium was at the world youth championships earlier this year. An update of his latest achievement on Facebook has earned him 500 likes, Shankar says. Being the youngest in the Indian athletics contingent, he is being pampered by seniors, who check whether he has eaten on time and advise him not to upset his body clock by staying up late. “As I am the baby in the team, everyone is taking good care of me. It has been wonderful to stay in the hotel of the senior team and meet some of India’s star athletes. This is a big moment for me,” the 6’4” tall Shankar says.
Being taller than most boys his age, Shankar tried his hand at fast bowling in school. “It was my father who told me about the skill and accuracy of McGrath. ‘If the batsman misses, you hit,’ my father would tell me. I recently played for my school at a tournament organised by Delhi Daredevils. To my surprise, batsmen ko meri ball dikh hi nahi rahi thi (batsmen couldn’t see the ball). I could bowl at about 120 kmph but I may be faster now because of the strength training I have done for high-jump,” says Shankar, who has put away his cricket shoes for the time being.
His preference for athletics has a back story. “My first medal in high jump was at the Delhi CBSE school meet. I had a mathematics unit test but did not tell my father that I was missing it to participate in athletics. When I came home, my father had ordered pastries because he got to know from my mother I had won a medal. My father wanted me to become a lawyer, but after seeing my first medal and my passion for athletics, he encouraged me.”
Shankar’s father Hari was afflicted by blood cancer and passed away three years ago. “I want to study law but at the same time I want to excel in athletics too. I know my father would have been happy seeing the way I have progressed.”
Shankar knows he will have to raise the bar further if he is to consistently win medals.
Next up is the Senior Asian Indoor Championships later this month. “Over the next three months, I want to be able to jump 2.20-plus. Now I have confidence that I can compete at the senior level, but I also need to continue improving and not stagnate after a point.”
Randhawa, who is the chief coach of the Delhi Development Authority sports scheme, has drawn up a plan to send Shankar for training to the United States. “I have not seen a high jumper with such potential in years. He has immense talent but what makes him special is his ability to rise to the occasion during competition,” Randhawa says.