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Friends off field, rivals on it: Gold for one, new India record for other

On Sunday evening, Jeswin Aldrin (21) and Murali Sreeshankar (23) were engaged in a dramatic face-off, in a long jump competition of lengths never reached before on Indian soil.

Murali Sreeshankar (left), Jeswin Aldrin. (Express photo by Andrew Amsan)

ONE IS the grandson of the man who introduced the famous “Muscoth halwa” to Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu. The other, from Palakkad in Kerala, is one of the country’s brightest track-and-field stars. The two are “really good friends”.

But on Sunday evening, Jeswin Aldrin (21) and Murali Sreeshankar (23) were engaged in a dramatic face-off, in a long jump competition of lengths never reached before on Indian soil.

Result: Nine 8-plus-metre jumps, two jumps better than the previous national record, two berths for India at the World Athletics Championships in the US later this year — and of course, plenty of drama.

Murali Sreeshankar and Jeswin Aldrin Murali Sreeshankar (L), Jeswin Aldrin (Express photo by Andrew Amsan)

If Neeraj Chopra’s gold at Tokyo made javelin-throwing a national pastime, Aldrin and Sreeshankar are today at the heart of a revolution in long jump.

Competing in the Federation Cup at the Calicut University stadium, Aldrin produced five 8-plus-metre jumps in six attempts, including one of 8.37m, which got him the top medal although it wasn’t counted as a national record since it was wind-assisted.

Pushed to the limit, Sreeshankar bettered his own national record by a good 10 centimetres in his third attempt with 8.36m.

In effect, Aldrin got the gold, and Sreeshankar the new record.

Unlike Sreeshankar who is coached by his father Murali, a former triple-jumper, Aldrin comes from a family with no background in sports. He is the grandson of Joseph Abraham, of the “Muscoth halwa” fame and whose family runs a flourishing sweets business in their hometown of Madalur.

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“I called them and they were so happy. Wherever I win, they distribute free sweets to every customer,” Aldrin said.

Jumpers capable of eight-plus metres have been few and far between in the country. Now, there are two who not only cross the barrier with ease but also look capable of going further. Their timing couldn’t have been better, too, as the Commonwealth Games, the Asian Games and the World Championships will be held this year.

Aldrin’s sequence of 8.01m, 8.37m, 8.14m, 8.26m, foul, 8.16m was breathtaking, Sreeshankar fouled thrice but his valid series of 8.16m, 8.36m and 8.07m was no mean feat, either.

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Murali Sreeshankar and Jeswin Aldrin. Murali Sreeshankar and Jeswin Aldrin.

Tokyo Olympian Sreeshankar set the tone with his first jump of 8.16m. This would usually have been enough to seal the title at national-level meets, but Aldrin was just getting started. He leapt 8.37m in the second round, better than the previous national record of 8.26m by Sreeshankar but with wind assistance of 4.1m/s — as per World Athletics, wind assistance of over 2m/s make jumps ineligible for records.

Boosted by Aldrin’s giant leap, Sreeshankar produced the best jump of his career in the next round with a huge leap of 8.36m. He then ran over to the officials to know the wind reading. After ensuring it was within the permissible level, he gave a thumbs-up to his family in the stands — a national record and a ticket to the world championships were in the bag.

But Sreeshankar could not rest easy. Aldrin had hit a good rhythm, and his fourth attempt yielded 8.26m, against the world championships qualification mark of 8.22m, which ensured that he would also be on that flight to Oregon, US, later this year.

“If we continue like this, both of us will be on the podium in Paris (Olympics), too,” said Sreeshankar with his arms around his “thambi” (younger brother) Aldrin.

Since the last Olympics cycle, Sreeshankar has been India’s best jumper by a distance. But now, Aldrin has emerged as a tough rival despite having entered the 8-m club just last month — with 8.20m at the Indian Grand Prix — to join Sreeshankar and another top contender Mohammed Anees.

Aldrin says his family never pushed him to join the sweets business but wanted the second-year Madras Christian College student to focus on studies. Initially, they were hesitant when told about his plans to pursue athletics. But a series of medals at the junior level changed their mind.

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Aldrin is currently being coached by two-time world championship medallist Yoandri Betanzos, who believes the youngster is destined to make it big. “I corrected his arm position, the strides, the momentum and the fall. We have been improving a lot but there is still a lot to improve on,” Betanzos, a Cuban, told The Indian Express on the eve of the final.

Aldrin believes his best is yet to come. “Now the competition has also become top level. I will push myself. I am a little disappointed that my jump won’t be considered for the national mark but I will try again,” he said.

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When Aldrin was making his final jump, Sreeshankar yelled out, “come on, thambi”, from the sidelines. Post-competition, they hugged and posed for photos.

“It’s a really good sign for Indian long jump that we have two jumpers who can do better than 8.35m. We are really good friends off the field and have backed each other. I have known him since our junior days and he always wishes me after every competition,” Sreeshankar said.

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The road ahead, of course, is long and tough. The Olympic record in long jump is still that iconic 8.90m set by Bob Beamon in 1968, and the world record is 8.95m from 1991 in the name of Mike Powell — both from the USA.

First published on: 04-04-2022 at 04:10:36 am
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