Out to become a cricketer, a ‘happy accident’ turned Tejaswin Shankar into India’s best high jumper. He currently holds the high jump record in India.
Brought up in Delhi, a city famous for producing ace cricketers like Virat Kohli, Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir and Ashish Nehra among others, Tejaswin Shankar always dreamed of becoming a fast bowler when he was young.
Somewhere over the course of his long run-up, however, Tejaswin Shankar shifted tracks and went on to become a high jumper – probably India’s best till date.
“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,” Tejaswin Shankar told the Olympic Channel.
Blessed with height and pace, fast bowler Shankar seemed on target for his cricketing ambitions, at least till the seventh grade. The youngster’s tall frame, though, soon proved to be a double-edged sword as it began affecting his athleticism adversely.
“I was very slow in the outfield and pretty weak. I missed out on the state team squad when I made the transition from Under-14 to Under-16 level.
“My new school coach 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.
Shankar soon began training in track and field events.
“I didn’t start as a high jumper. I started with the 400m and then tried my hand at triple jump as well. But high jump was the sport where I began finding some success in. I competed in the Delhi State Athletics Championships in 2013 and won a bronze medal.
“Once I started winning and improving, I wanted to continue my pursuit in high jump. Slowly and steadily, I began moving away from cricket and started taking athletics more seriously,” he said.
Tejaswin Shankar believes that high jump was a ‘happy accident’ in his career, as the switch helped him discover his latent talent for the sport. It wasn’t long before he became India’s leading athlete in the discipline.
Tejaswin Shankar won a gold medal at the 2015 Commonwealth Youth Games in Apia and followed it up with a silver at the 2016 South Asian Games.
The same year, the 6’4” tall Tejaswin Shankar created history as he shattered Hari Shankar Roy’s 12-year-old national high jump record, clearing 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.
Tejaswin Shankar intended to enrol himself at a university in his native Delhi and continue to pursue his athletic dreams.
However, a chance meeting with India’s then javelin throw coach Gary Calvert in Bengaluru ended up giving his athletics career a boost. 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 noted.
The NCAA is a non-profit organisation which organises several student athletic programs to help and scout for the next generation of star American athletes.
To ensure that their athletes have a high level of competition, colleges and universities in the United States often dole out scholarships to recruit some of the finest young, foreign athletes. It was through this program that Shankar bagged an admission to the 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.
“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 recalls.
The move has worked out brilliantly for both Shankar and Kansas State University as the then 19-year-old won a gold medal in his debut season at the NCAA in 2018.
Already a national record holder, Tejaswin Shankar, in April 2018, bettered his own personal best to breach 2.29 metres at NCAA’s Texas Tech Corky/Crofoot Shootout. The national high jump India record still stands.
Tejaswin Shankar admits that being in the NCAA has moulded him into a better athlete.
“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 explained.
The planned training regimen has continued to yield results for Shankar, as he won a silver medal in his second NCAA season.
Another factor which has helped Tejaswin Shankar is the variation in the training routine.
“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.”
With the men’s high jump qualification mark for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics set at 2.33 metres, Tejaswin Shankar knows he will need to push past his personal best to feature at the global sporting showpiece in Japan next year.
Citing the results of the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Doha, Tejaswin pointed out, “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.”