Tejaswin Shankar: From a fielding dud to track and field prodigy
The Indian capital city of New Delhi has produced many acclaimed cricketers in the past who have gone on to achieve big things for the country. From Bishan Singh Bedi to Virender Sehwag and current Indian skipper Virat Kohli, Delhi has given the nation many cricketing icons over the years.
With several role models to look up to, a young Tejaswin Shankar began his foray into cricket, harbouring dreams of one day becoming a leading fast bowler for the country.
“Growing up, I was in a kind of environment where cricket was the only sport. My father was a lawyer for the BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India), so I was engrossed in the sport right from a young age,” said Shankar while in conversation with the Olympic Channel.
Until the seventh grade, Shankar was one of the standout performers in his team making the most of his tall, lanky frame to bowl at a good pace and causing serious problems to opposition batsmen. The youngster’s height though soon proved to be a double-edged sword as it began affecting his athleticism and he struggled to keep up to his lofty cricketing standards.
“I was very slow in the outfield and pretty weak, and missed out on the state team squad when I made the transition from Under-14 to Under-16 level. My new school coach therefore suggested that I take up athletics to improve my running mechanics and agility, telling me ‘You will only be able to field the ball if you get to the ball’,” he revealed.
On his school coach Sunil Kumar’s advice, Shankar began training in track and field events. His father however, wasn’t convinced with the new coach’s approach, so the youngster revealed that he used to train for his track and field sports during the lunch break in order to keep his family from finding out.
“I didn’t start off as a high jumper. I started off doing the 400m and then tried my hand at triple jump as well but high jump was the sport I began finding some success in. I competed in the Delhi State Championships in 2013 and was able to win a bronze medal there with a jump of 1.70 metres.”
“Once I started winning something and improving in the sport, I wanted to continue my pursuit in the high jump. So slowly and steadily, I began moving away from cricket and started taking athletics more seriously,” Shankar added.
The now 20-year-old athlete believes that high jump was a happy accident in his career, with his coach’s suggested sport switch helping him discover his latent talent for high jumping. With a dedicated coach backing his new endeavour, Shankar continued his foray in high jump and soon enough, became a leading athlete from India in the discipline.
In 2016, the 6’4” tall athlete created history as he shattered a 12-year-old national record by jumping 2.26 metres at the Junior National Championships in Coimbatore. The youngster has since performed admirably on the global stage as well, finishing in sixth place at the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
After completing his 12th grade, Shankar’s initial plan was to enroll himself at a university in his native Delhi and continue pursuing his athletic dreams. However, a chance meeting with India’s then javelin throw coach Gary Calvert in Bengaluru ended up giving his career a different direction. The Australian coach enlightened the young high jumper about American college sports and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
“My entire education would be paid for and the competition is so high quality in the collegiate system that at least a few finalists at the 2020 or 2024 Olympics would be the ones who have been in the NCAA system. So that really caught my attention,” Shankar revealed.
The NCAA is a non-profit organisation that organises several athletic programs to help and scout for the next generation of American athletes. To ensure that their athletes have a high level of competition, colleges and universities often dole out scholarships to recruit some of the finest young, foreign athletes. It was through this program that Shankar bagged admission at Kansas State University.
“Kansas State University has a really reputed coach for high jump. Some of the alumni of this university include Matt Hemingway, who won a silver at the 2004 Athens Olympics, and Erik Kynard, who won at London 2012.
“Therefore, Kansas was the only college I wanted to go to but when I started emailing colleges, I received positive replies from all places but Kansas. I was very close to signing with another college just before Kansas made me an offer, and I just jumped at that opportunity,” he recalled.
The move has worked out brilliantly for both Shankar and Kansas State University as the then 19-year-old won a historic gold medal in his debut season at the NCAA. The youngster set a new national record at the Track and Field Championships in 2018, with a mark of 2.29 metres.
“Starting from day one, everything has worked like clockwork for me and luckily, it rained when I was participating in the final. I’ve noticed that I perform very well when it rains, and when it rained, I knew that this was my day.”
The fortuitous rain aside, Shankar credits his systematic coaching processes and training for helping him make a great start to American collegiate sports.
A major difference that the youngster has noticed between the sports cultures in India and the United States is how systematic and scientific the training processes are abroad.
“In India, when I started high-jumping, my coach and I were learning off each other and we had to research a lot on how to go about things. But here in the US, the programme is tried and tested, and there is a clear pathway to success. We get our training workouts well in advance and have a month’s notice on how we are supposed to train and what events we are supposed to participate in,” Shankar pointed out.
The Indian also revealed that he is encouraged to take part in other track and field events so as to stay fit and avoid over-repetition.
“A sport like high jump is a unilateral sport where you jump off your right leg way more often, and there are so many imbalances that can get created. Therefore, I’m encouraged to practise hurdles and long jump to train and balance out my body.”
“It also helps get (rid of) the monotony and feel fresh during training sessions because if I’m doing the same jumping sessions Monday through Thursday for nearly 10 months, it can get tedious.”
The varied training regimes have continued to yield results for Shankar, as he won a silver medal in his second NCAA season.
Shankar skipped the recently concluded IAAF World Athletics Championships so he could better prepare for Tokyo 2020 as that’s his main goal at the moment.
The 20-year-old will need to set a new personal best to come close to winning independent India’s first track and field medal. Nevertheless, he believes he can upset the odds and takes inspiration from the results of the 2019 World Championships held recently in Doha.
“Nobody expected that it would take a jump of 2.37 metres to win the gold; and nobody expected Qatar’s Mutaz Barshim to win because he had an ankle injury last year. But he ended up decimating the record. So, anything can happen on a good day,” Shankar said confidently.
When Tejaswin Shankar deciding to experiment with athletics a few years ago to improve his cricketing abilities, little did he know that his ‘happy accident’ would end up giving him a national high jump record and raise him to the pedestal of being India’s brightest track and field prospect as the Olympic year begins.