Far ahead of national competition, tantalisingly close to world championship levels, 18-year-old Delhi school boy Tejaswin Shankar is India’s high jump hope. The Indian Express traces the highs and the lows.
A bunch of boys comprising the school cricket team are playing a practice match ahead of a game. Those who have finished batting sit on the coarse grass around the coach where the short third-man would be positioned. They are watching a teammate learning to rotate the strike but, between deliveries, craned necks turn towards the far end of the school ground where a high jump mat is being dragged into place.
As a crossbar is placed over the jump stands, one cricketer wonders to another, “How high is that?”
“No idea,” answers the other. “But even Tejaswin won’t be able to jump so high. It is just for the photograph,” he smirks, pointing at the cameraman hovering around the high jump mat at Sardar Patel Vidyalaya on Central Delhi’s Lodhi Road.
The crossbar has been placed at 2.26 metres or 7.41 feet. For some perspective, if former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal stood beside the bar, he would be 10 centimetres shorter. Tejaswin Shankar is tall enough not to be dwarfed by basketballers. He stands at 6’4”.
His schoolmates are wrong. For the lanky lad has placed the bar at exactly the same height that he sailed over to break the senior national high jump record —which lasted 12 years — at the 32nd National Junior Championships held in Coimbatore in November.
Shankar is trying to grow his first stubble; he just became eligible to apply for a driving licence (he turned 18 on Wednesday); and he will give his Class XII board exams in a few months. He could also be among India’s medal prospects at the next Asian Games.
Before Shankar, the national record was held by Hari Roy, who at 18 sailed over 2.18 metres at the Senior Inter-state Champions in Chennai in 2004, and within months, raised it to 2.25 metres at an Asian All-Star Meet.
Coach and talent scout Nallusamy Annavi, who was present in Coimbatore when Shankar broke the national record, says his physique makes him a once-in-a-generation jumper. “Shankar has the height but he also has strength and speed. There are many tall jumpers but height alone is not enough. You need to be strong — a kind of explosive power — and you need speed. And he has all these attributes. I have seen many jumpers over the years but nobody in recent memory has the special qualities Shankar has,” Annavi says.
He should know. A generation earlier, Annavi was not yet 19 when he had broken the national mark and raised it first to 2.12 metres in 1984 and then to 2.16 metres six years later. He believes Shankar has the potential to touch 2.36 metres, 10 cm higher than his personal best. “He is a medal prospect for India at international meets, even at the Olympics,” Annavi says, weighing his words carefully.
A look at the results of the World Youth Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland, in July gives a measure of Shankar’s potential. He had qualified for the event with a silver at the South Asian Games in Guwahati in February — his first senior meet — where he jumped 2.17 metres, but missed Bydgoszcz due to a groin injury.
The gold in the high jump at the world U-20 championship was won by Luis Enrique of Cuba with a jump of 2.27 metres. Going by his Coimbatore performance, Shankar could have won silver at Bydgoszcz.
Similarly, had Shankar participated at the Rio Olympics, he would have finished 11th in the final.
Annavi thinks what Shankar needs are better coaches. “He has immense talent but needs to now start training with the best in the world.”
Adille Sumariwalla, the former national sprint champion and now president of the Athletics Federation of India (AFI), says he has no doubt Shankar is talented, but the road ahead is hard and long. “He has shown great potential at a young age but we have seen in the past that early promise does not necessarily translate into medals at the international level in senior competition,” Sumariwalla says. “We will provide him the best possible exposure and training but it remains to be seen how he performs, especially in the big events when faced with competition. Some athletes thrive under pressure while others can’t handle it.”
Sunil Kumar, the physical education teacher at Sardar Patel Vidyalaya, was the first to spot Shankar’s talent. He remembers the boy who once fancied himself as a cricketer, like others his age. Shankar still bowls at a fast clip, but off a wrong-footed action, possesses a natural in-swinger and is a handy batsman. He also likes to watch videos of fast bowlers, particularly Wasim Akram and Mohammed Aamir.
When he was still in Class VIII, Kumar advised Shankar to try out the high jump pit. “He was warming up with a group of boys and I noticed he ran with a natural bounce. Not everyone has this bounce. I asked him if he wants to give high jump a shot,” Kumar recalls.
The teacher even has a grainy video on his phone of one of Shankar’s earliest recorded jumps, in 2013. It shows a lanky boy in school uniform jumping over 1.45 metres with the basic scissor technique — of a jumper landing on his feet after his legs go over the bar one after the other — as his schoolmates cheer on.
Within a few months, he was winning medals at national meets for CBSE schools and had improved his personal best by nearly 40 cm at the Under-16 level.
It was during one of his earliest competitions, the CBSE Nationals in Varanasi, that Shankar came up against junior national champion Jeo Jose, who was an exponent of the Fosbury Flop, the dominant technique in high jump the world over. Shankar was still using the basic scissor jump, which requires tremendous take-off strength. “I cleared 1.84 metres and won the gold. I had beaten a national champion who was taller than me, who was more experienced and had a better personal best. This was when I realised I had it in me to be a high jumper,” Shankar says.
Shankar’s mother admits they were not too pleased with sports occupying that much of his school life, and that too a sport with as little appeal as high jump. His father Harishankar was a lawyer, who had represented the Indian cricket board, and he wanted his son to study law and take over the family firm.
Still, if Shankar had to pick a sport, Harishankar believed, cricket was the sensible choice. Glenn McGrath was often the topic of discussion between the father and son, and Harishankar argued how Shankar had the height to become a fast bowler, and earn the fame and money that came with cricket.
“Who watches athletics?” Harishankar once asked Pankaj Maitrey, a former first-class cricketer and now a coach at Sardar Patel Vidyalaya. “How will he earn a living?”
The family, originally from Trichy and Madurai in Tamil Nadu, also worried about the drug taint surrounding athletics.
Around the time, Harishankar was also battling a relapse of multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer, a fact he hid from the family. Eventually, he passed away in 2014 of the disease, at the age of 48. His failing health was another reason Harishankar wanted to make sure his son was around to pick up the reins after him.
When Shankar showed reluctance, Harishankar asked wife Lakshmi to enrol for law classes so that she could look after the business. “I joined a law college in Greater Noida,” Lakshmi says.
She adds that she could understand Harishankar’s anxiety. “We have come up the hard way. I belong to a family of priests and so did my husband. He grew up in a single-room accommodation in Munirka in Delhi along with his sisters. He studied hard and went to law school and made a name for himself. It is only after we got married and things started looking up that we could buy a place of our own.”
Finally, Maitrey, the school coach, asked Harishankar to visit the school, to see for himself how good his son was in the sport, and then make up his mind.
“It was Activity Week at the school, where we have cultural and sport competitions. I knew Tejaswin would break the school record. I convinced his father to come and watch,” Maitrey says.
He remembers exactly how it unfolded. Dusk had fallen, and as Shankar ran up to the high jump pit, students turned their mobile phones towards it to light up the spot.
From a few metres away, Harishankar watched his son rewrite the school record.
Maitrey feels that was the day Harishankar realised Shankar’s potential as well as how happy his son was pursuing the sport. Shankar says the atmosphere at home changed after that. Once Shankar missed a mathematics unit test to participate in a CBSE meet. When he came home, his father had ordered pastries. Lakshmi had told him Shankar had won a medal.
In early 2014, Shankar, knowing by now that his father was living on borrowed time, wrote a letter to him promising that the School Nationals in Ranchi would be his last meet and that, after that, he would focus all his attention on academics. At the meet, when Shankar soared over 1.86 metres and won a bronze medal, Harishankar finally told him not to worry about anything else, to just pursue his passion.
It was less than a year ago that Lakshmi herself watched Shankar in competition for the first time. She accompanied Shankar to Raipur for the CBSE School Nationals, held two days after he had a surgery to remove a painful corn from his right foot, the one he uses for take-off. The doctor advised rest, but seeing how crestfallen Shankar was, Lakshmi had let him compete.
“He jumped with the pain and won the gold. His foot was bleeding but he was happy,” Lakshmi smiles.
In Raipur too, Shankar broke the meet record, scaling a height of 2.14 metres, an improvement from 2.01, a mark also in his name. An elderly man in the audience was so impressed he gave Shankar Rs 500 as “inaam (prize)”.
“I was watching Tejaswin jump the first time and I realised how popular he was and how much love and good wishes people had for him. The man who gave Tejaswin the money was with the Central Reserve Police Force and told us to call him if Tejaswin ever needed a job,” Lakshmi says.
In September, at the Senior National Open Athletics Championships held in Lucknow — Shankar’s first competition in four months — he bettered his personal best from 2.17 metres to 2.22 to win the gold. He had attempted 2.26 but could not clear the bar.
Breaking the senior national record in Coimbatore while participating in the youth category (U-18) was the next milestone, especially as Shankar had had to miss the World Youth championships because of injury. “The meet in Coimbatore was the last one for me this season. If I didn’t break the record there, I would have to wait till the next season to try and achieve the mark because I would go into off-season training,” he says.
***This year, Shankar has recalibrated his training regimen. He had been training under the Delhi Development Authority’s sports scheme but got an opportunity to undergo a stint under high jumper Jamie Nieto in Azuza, California, when JSW sponsored him. The trip opened his eyes to a different approach to high jump.
“Earlier, I used to just keep jumping and jumping, but once I went to Azusa, I realised that running, sprinting and strength training are equally important for a high jumper. Three days a week I would be at the gym doing weight training. I am running the 100 metres in 11 seconds flat compared to 11.7 earlier. Technique is important but without overall development and building different muscle groups, it is difficult to improve. I was a little obsessed with the technique and things like centrifugal force and my path on the runway. I would take three measuring tapes to ensure that everything was perfect. But now I can tell you that raw elements like speed, strength are also equally important. I used to think high jump was some sort of rocket science,” Shankar says.
Shankar likes going over videos of other high jumpers, particularly his current potential competitors around the world, and is currently closely watching a video that explains through graphics and videos the technique of Olympic champion Derek Drouin. He says the videos also make him realise the similarities between different sports and how they are inter-linked. Which is why he hopes to compete in javelin and hurdles as well as get a chance to bowl during inter-school matches.
All three activities, he insists, are linked to high jump. “The penultimate step before you release the javelin and plant the step are similar to high jump,” he says. Videos of fast bowler Brett Lee have made him realise how his movements before delivering the ball are also similar to that of a javelin thrower, he adds.
As for running the hurdles, Shankar explains, “You take three steps between each hurdle and in high jump the last three strides are the key. The faster the last three strides are, the more lift you get. Fast bowling also helps you maintain stride rhythm. In fast bowling, if one stride is too big or one stride is too small, it can affect your momentum when at the popping crease. It is similar in high jump.”
His own video, breaking the senior national record at the junior meet in Coimbatore, has been viewed over 5,000 times online.
Shankar’s eyes are now set on the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games, both to be held in 2018. However, the going will be only tougher from hence on. “Next season I want to clear 2.26 again and move up to 2.30. By 2018, my target is to be consistent at 2.30 as this height is a strong base from which I can improve further,” he says.
Lakshmi admits that while Shankar must do all he can to become among the best jumpers in the world, she hopes he will eventually graduate in law and take over the family firm. “I became a lawyer after being a housewife for many years,” she points out.
Recently, while cleaning his cupboard, Shankar says, he came across the letter he wrote to his father all those years ago. “It was still there. I read it again.”