Andrew Amsan: You both seem to bond very well. How close are you two and what kind of bond do you share on and off the field?
Murali Sreeshankar: I met Tejaswin at the 2014 Junior Nationals. At the time I didn’t know him very well. But after some months we met at the youth nationals. He broke the national record when he was still in the U-18s. He was the most exciting talent the country had seen. And of course, both of our names have Shankars and both of us are jumpers. I think that was one way we connected. Also, he used to motivate me a lot after the competitions. We are very happy that both Shankars could win medals for the country. Hopefully, at the Asian Games and even the Paris Olympics, we will be able to do the same.
Tejaswin Shankar: For me, the first weird interaction with Sree had to be at Vijayawada. These guys were wearing the Kerala uniforms, (green and gold) in 2014. Usually we have nationals in synthetic tracks but that was a one-of-a-kind nationals where we had the tournament on a mitti ka track (cinder track). That was weird in itself, but to then see this guy jump so far on a sand track — it was unbelievable.
I bond with people who are a lot like me in terms of personality. More importantly, he is a thinking athlete and that’s something that resonates with me. He thinks about what he does. You end up having more things to talk about other than ‘aur training kaisi chal rahi hai?’ (And how is your training going?). Because there is more to talk about, your friendship transcends the track.
Nihal Koshie: This is your first medal at an international competition as seniors. From an early age, people have expected you to win medals for India. Was there pressure of this expectation and now has that pressure been lifted?
TS: I think both of us have had similar journeys but the details have been different. Initially we showed a lot of promise. After that, I don’t feel our performances really dipped but it’s more about how the expectations were so lofty. Junior nationals, senior nationals, Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and Olympic medals — our graph was just made to point upwards. The expectations became so high that we started feeling that way as well. But I think we progressed the way we should have. Both of us have had situations, or curveballs that have come our way.
MS: Track and field is one event where the standards of competition are very high. Be it CWG or Asiad, the quality of jump events is very high. At CWG, there are the Australian, New Zealand and Bahamas guys and winning a medal is not easy. It’s the same with the Asian Games. People had big expectations from us, especially coming from junior events. But we really need to understand that this is a long process and it will take time to get to the top. Track and field events are not participated in by 10-15 countries, but the whole world. It’s not just about getting physically mature but also mentally mature and I’m sure top-level athletes have been through the same phase in their career. Of course we are overwhelmed by the love and support. But the process is full of ups and downs.
Nihal Koshie: Tejaswin, what is it like to study, train and compete at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA)? What are the challenges? Would you say it’s a feasible route for Indian athletes?
TS: When I got my first offer, I thought it was some sort of scam. ‘Aapko koi leke bhi jaa raha hai, padha bhi raha hai, rakh bhi raha hai, aur sab kuch free mein,’ (Your travel, education and stay is all free). I thought it was some sort of a kidnapping racket. Over time, when I did my research and started talking to coaches, I realised it’s a legit system. We always look at the example of other countries but never look at the example of Canada.
After the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, Canada took a conscious effort to send their best athletes at the grassroot level — to the NCAA system. The result was that in 2016 you could see so many Canadians at the Olympics. Andre De Grasse (sprinter), Alysha Newman (pole vaulter) are all finds from the NCAA system that Canada utilised properly. Since I have gone through the system and have seen all of it, I personally advocate for it. I mean, it’s free and hum toh Indians hain aur free cheez toh humein waise bhi pasand hai (And us Indians love anything that’s free). If it’s free and we can use it, then why are we relying on the government to spend crores of rupees on sports budgets? Trust your athletes to come back home and perform at a high level.
Nihal Koshie: When you had started the sport, your father was a little apprehensive. You had also written a letter to him in 2014, saying that the school nationals would be your last event. Talk to us about the initial days of you taking up the sport.
TS: My father was a lawyer for Chennai Super Kings, India Cements and the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association. He thought that education is important, but if you want to take up sport, cricket should be the one to pick up. That was the time the IPL had kicked off. Then one fine day, I found Sunil sir in my school, and he told me if you want to do well in sports you have to run, even in cricket you need to run after the ball, so fitness became a big part of my regimen and we started doing track and field training. I didn’t do high jump till I was in the 9th grade, I think. Till then it was just long and triple jump, and a lot of running.
My father used to ask why am I participating in sports and that I should concentrate on academics. He didn’t think there was potential in athletics. He knew about doping and was wary of it.
So before those Ranchi nationals, he gave me that ultimatum that I was to either do sports or academics. He said, ‘choose and I will help you in either’. That was in January. I wrote that letter, and said, very emotionally, that ‘I will quit and focus on studies and keep you happy’.
When I won my first medal (bronze) at the (school) Nationals, he understood that this is my passion. He was moved by that letter, and then he just wanted me to follow my dreams. He didn’t have much time after that. He passed away in March. Every time I get a bronze I feel it is the beginning of something. Earlier it was my first Nationals bronze, and now again this one (CWG 2022) is another start of something.
Nihal Koshie: Sreeshankar, after the Tokyo Olympics did not go well for you, the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) sacked your father as the coach. How difficult was that and what helped you bounce back at the CWG?
MS: Of course, not just physically but mentally. And not just for me, but for my family. I was confident in Tokyo after qualifying with a decent jump. I didn’t have much expectation of making the podium, but I was confident to make it to the finals or the top eight. I had issues with Covid-19, and had to take successive vaccinations. That resulted in really bad fitness; I was never able to train fully in those three months. Everything was going south and I was never 100 per cent in my training for the Olympics. The first thing I did after Tokyo was my rehabilitation at Inspire Institute of Sport. I spent a month there, doing intensive rehab and training. After that, I finished all my exams and cleared my bachelor’s degree.
By the first week of March, I knew this season would be good. I jumped 8.16 metres in my first attempt. Of course, this season I had my dad with me. After the Federation Cup, we were in the national camp too. Things have gone well for me at the international level too, and I have got my medal at the CWG. But I really think this is the beginning. All these are just stepping stones to the Paris Olympics.
Andrew Amsan: After Paris is when you will have parotta (Kerala layered flat bread)?
MS: I don’t know how that story popped up. But one day, I remember in 2019, I was having parotta. All Malayalis know how big the parotta is for us. My dad saw me and said you keep eating this and other athletes are jumping 8.15 metres and over. So I told my dad I will not have it until the Olympics. But there, my performance went down.
So immediately I called my parents and said I won’t have it until I win a medal. I didn’t have it after CWG. The treat is saved for the Olympics.
Sandeep Dwivedi: Everything is happening together. (Avinash) Sable, you guys. There is this talk about Neeraj Chopra opening the floodgates. Why has India suddenly started to do well?
MS: After Neeraj bhaiya’s medal last year, the common perception that Indian athletes can’t perform on the global stage is like a myth right now. It no longer exists. In this year’s World Championships we had six finalists and one medal. The gold medal has completely changed the mindset of all the athletes for sure. After Neeraj bhaiya’s medal, we started to have more belief that we, too, are not far behind (world’s top athletes) and we, too, are capable of winning medals. When we go as a team for the World Championships, the international coaches and athletes have started recognising us. Earlier we used to go to them and say ‘hello’, now they are coming to us and saying ‘hello’.
TS: The Neeraj Chopra factor is the first reason. Mostly because among athletes the mental block has disappeared. Especially when it comes to the finals, we are known to be fourth-place finishers at the Olympic Games. But for somebody to go win a gold medal, it just clears out that mental block.
Another reason we see more Indian athletes at the World Championships and the Olympic Games is because of the ranking system. Before this, the qualifying standards were a little more stiff for all of us. The ranking system has especially been helpful for athletes from some of the countries who don’t have superpower athletes like the US, where they have the depth of six to seven people qualifying and getting the ‘A Standard’. Because we have a lot of borderline athletes, who are good but not great… maybe they are in the development stage of their lives, the ranking system makes it easier. Athletes like me are looking to go and compete abroad and trying to get those ranking points. That way we are also getting the exposure and getting into these big meets, which open up those personal barriers which a lot of our athletes had.
Mihir Vasavda: When you are training and competing, do you share tips and push each other? You mentioned Neeraj and that you guys mess around.
TS: When I say mess around, please don’t get me wrong. It is not some criminal activity (laughs). We just sit around and talk. This one time we were in Bangalore for the JSW (management company) camp and we were walking and he took a twig and threw it. I asked him what are you doing? And he said I am practising the block. He is always thinking of his event. But he is a very funny guy and his jokes come out of the blue. There is this serious Neeraj Chopra, the athlete and the Olympic champion versus this guy who is a pure, little kid at heart and cares about having fun. I have seen that side of him and that makes my experience more memorable with him.
For me, it is less about the competitive nature with my teammates but more about what I can contribute to bring the best out of my fellow teammates after I am done. Cheering on these people makes me happy and live in the moment as a fan.
Nitin Sharma: How will the medals in athletics inspire young kids to pursue athletics as well as parents to send children to athletics?
MS: I’m very uncertain about that aspect because we don’t have a kind of security around sportspersons here. Once you win a medal, you get good money and you are settled for life. But when you don’t have a proper educational back up, you can’t simply rely on sports to give you a good quality lifestyle because there are high chances that you may get injured and you are not able to perform. My parents were also worried when I told them that I wanted to stop my engineering and do sports full time because the next two years are crucial for me. Initially they were reluctant, even though they have been sportspersons, and because they know how the system here is.
I’ve seen a lot of memes circulating around the internet about math teachers always taking away PT periods and not allowing kids to play and yet we expect lots of medals. That is completely wrong because math teachers know the pain if their student’s career does not prosper. What happens if you go and play in the PT period and get injured and you are not able to play anymore? You have to think about that aspect too. So, when I see those math teachers memes during the the Olympics or Commonwealth Games, it really hurts, because I am also a math student. I really like my math teachers and they never took my PT periods.
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We need to have a more secure system. As Tejaswin said, we need to have that kind of NCAA system in India too, where your grades are equally important for you to pursue your sporting career.
TS: At national camps you do not train for more than three-five hours and you still have 20 hours in the day. Once you go to the camp or you are at that level, you make good money. Once you win a Commonwealth Games medal, the government pushes for financial incentive. I feel that every athlete should know how to handle that money. So financial literacy should definitely be taught in camps. For athletes who are not able to go to school, at least (they should) learn about financial literacy and learn how to formulate their thoughts when they talk. I feel athletes are really sharp, all you have to do is expose them to the possibilities.