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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Long Read: A village of churches, halwa and the next big hope in Indian athletics, long jumper Jeswin Aldrin

Long jumper Jeswin Aldrin, 20, made heads turn with a series of 8-metre-plus jumps this season and a gold medal at the Federation Cup. The Indian Express travels to Mudalur, the village of the rising star in athletics, to get a taste of the famous Muscoth halwa created by Aldrin's great grandfather and to trace the journey of the shy and reticent jumper destined to break records and bag major medals.

Written by Andrew Amsan | Thoothukudi |
Updated: April 18, 2022 7:30:16 am
Aldrins’ growth as a top athlete began when as a sporty kid he took a liking for the outdoors.

Mudalur, a quiet village in Thoothukudi district of Tamil Nadu, is known for its churches, Muscoth halwa and now for the country’s latest long jump sensation Jeswin Aldrin.

The 20-year-old with multiple entries in the 8 metre-club and a gold medal at the Federation Cup has strong links to faith and the delicacy. The Singhalese-inspired sweet was first made by Aldrin’s great grandfather Joseph Abraham. Aldrin’s family is Pentecostal. In Mudalur there are seven churches. The village is believed to be one of the first Christian settlements in the region. Hence the name Mudalur — first village.

Aldrin is deeply rooted in his faith. The first line in his Twitter bio says, “Believe in God”. At the main door of his house, there is a banner with a world map and a verse from the Bible printed on it. The hall has framed bibles verses on the walls.

As Aldrin and his family gathered for their first meal after he returned home with the gold medal, his father Johnson quipped: “You’ve been to what three countries now? Our halwa to 12.”

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Jewsin with his parents Esther and Johnson. (Photo: Andrew Amsan)

The family runs two bakeries – one is owned by Abraham’s sons. The halwa, which is exported, is made in a kitchen behind their shop.

Halwa, long jump and medals are conversations during the fish curry and rice meal. Johnson jokes that Aldrin has immense growth potential just like the family’s halwa business. He is spot on.

Since his first 8 metre-plus jump at the Indian Grand Prix in March, Aldrin has crossed the coveted distance five times – in one evening in Kozhikode during the Federation Cup earlier this month. One of those efforts was wind-assisted 8.37 metres. His next-best matched the previous national record of 8.26m and earned him a spot in the Indian team for the World Championships in Oregon and surpassed the qualifying standard for the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games.

Aldrins’ growth as a top athlete began when as a sporty kid he took a liking for the outdoors.

He was spotted at the school ground more often than in the classroom. He was part of the school’s kho-kho and volleyball team and was a decent runner as well. When it came to track and field, he tried his hand at high jump first.

Jeswin with his physical education teachers at his school grounds. (Photo: Andrew Amsan)

“We got a jump pit stitched at a local furniture store just for Aldrin. We used fixed poles to put the bar on. It was tough to procure a jumping pit for just one student so we managed with what we could. I think that is one of the reasons Aldrin moved to long jump,” Anitta Irene, one of the physical education teachers at the Daniel Thomas Matriculation Higher Secondary School, said.

High jump’s loss was long jump’s gain. Johnson believes long jump was always Aldrin’s true calling. He recalls Aldrin making a dash to the long jump pit to watch as soon as he had finished the high jump competition at junior meets.

Aldrin didn’t take much time to pick up the long jump technique and soon started accumulating gold medals in almost every meet.

Benson, a volleyball coach at Aldrin’s school, feels no one but the youngster deserves credit for becoming one of the finest athletes in the country.

“He used to come and practice for hours at the school ground. On weekends he used to go to Anna Stadium, more than an hour away, to practice at the synthetic track. Most kids in our school don’t even know what a synthetic track is yet,” Benson said.

Jeswin makes it a point to meet his teachers whenever he visits his hometown. (Photo: Andrew Amsan)

A major turning point in Aldrin’s career occurred during the 2019 junior nationals in Ranchi. French coach Antony Yaich, the former head of track-and-field at JSW’s Inspire Institute of Sport (IIS), saw potential in a young Aldrin.

Aldrin’s elasticity stood out for the Frenchman. Yaich made a major change though. He asked Aldrin to adopt a more efficient method of hitch-hike technique — where the jumper completes a cyclic-kick motion while airborne — instead of the hang technique.

“I think Antony deserves a lot of credit. Aldrin is here because of his strict training. Initially, we were hesitant about sending Aldrin to Bellary to train at IIS but Antony is good at convincing. He just asked us to visit once. When we saw the facilities we couldn’t say no,” Aldrin’s uncle Simon Issac said. The uncle saw the potential in Aldrin years before coach Yaich did.

Jeswin behind the counter at their factory outlet in Mudalur. (Pic: Andrew Amsan)

When Aldrin was finishing high school, his parents wanted him to focus on academics and secure admission at a top college. “I had to do a lot of convincing. I explained to them that Aldrin would get into the best institutions and also secure a good job all because of sports,” Issac said.

Aldrin is reserved and likes to keep his replies brief, mostly monosyllables. When at home he wears his headphones and plays games on his mobile phone. He also likes to stay away from the limelight. When he was called to studios by Tamil news channels after his Federation Cup gold, he hesitantly agreed. “‘Do we really have to do it now? ‘Can you tell them I will give interviews after winning an Olympic medal’,” Issac recalled.

Those who know Aldrin say he opens up and is a warm person once he gets to know someone well. “He gets attached. He loves his friends and was always up to some mischief with them. He loves talking with his friends,” Irene said.

Aldrin has just recently started training with two-time World Championship medallist from Cuba, Yoandri Betanzos and the results are already showing. All his 8 plus jumps have been registered post the Cuban coach’s arrival. Aldrin’s recent spike in performance means he and national record holder Sreeshankar Murali will be pushing each other to excel. Just like they did during the Federation Cup.

Jeswin on top of a coconut shell pile behind his halwa factory. Coconut milk is one of the main ingredients in the famed Mucosth halwa. (Photo: Andrew Amsan)

The two jumpers going head-to-head had made for great viewing in what was the best long jump competition ever on Indian soil. The challenge for Aldrin will be to consistently produce the big jumps at the major competitions. An 8.37m jump, without wind assistance, could land him an international medal.

“Things are working well with Yoandri. There are a lot of areas that he has found that I need to work on. I will be training hard and giving it my best,” Aldrin said.

As Aldrin prepares for a busy year, the family will be praying that the wind doesn’t play spoilsport again. “I did a lot of research about the wind assistance and rules post the Fed Cup. I think I have become an expert myself,” father Johnson, who not only follows his son’s progress but keeps tabs on jumpers around the world, said.

Esther, Aldrin’s mother, is also clued in about her son’s career. “I stream all my son’s competitions and follow his events religiously,” she said.

“Tell me which event you followed?” Aldrin asked in jest.

“I know your latest effort would have placed you second in last year’s top-10 list,” she replied. Aldrin thinks and nods. The boy from Mudalur, with his feet firmly on the ground, at times needs a reminder of the giant strides he has made. The eldest son in the family is becoming a household name, just like the halwa his great grandfather created.

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