Tejaswin Shankar, the Commonwealth Games bronze-medallist, has set his sights on the July 12-16 Asian Athletics Championships to be held in Bangkok, after his success in decathlon at the 62nd National Inter-State Senior Athletics Championships this month.
In the June 15-19 event, the Delhiite scored 7,576 points to win gold in decathlon and better the Hangzhou Asian Games qualification criteria of 7,500 points set by the Athletics Federation of India (AFI).
“It was hot and humid in Bhubaneswar. The strength-sapping weather restricted me from scoring over 7,576 points,” Shankar explained to Patriot. “Hopefully I should be able to reach close to 7,700 points in Bangkok.”
“I’ve just three weeks to recover and prepare for the next decathlon competition in Thailand,” said the national champion from his training base at Inspire Institute of Sports (IIS) in Bellary, Karnataka.
Shankar is spending a week in Bellary for active recovery before starting on a two-week plan to achieve his next goal, a podium finish in Bangkok.
It has been an unusual journey for the towering six-feet-four-inch teenager who started as a pace bowler during his schooldays.
He was asked to do drills to improve his physical fitness but ended up switching to high jump. He started competing in athletics in 2013 and made rapid progress. He raised the bar to 2.26 metres in the under-18 group in 2016 which was a junior national record. He also holds the senior national record of 2.29 metres.
Big career move
In 2017, he became the third Indian to earn a four-year athletics scholarship to Kansas State University in USA and an opportunity to compete in the highly competitive National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) circuit in the country.
Triple jumper Mohinder Singh Gill (1970) and discus thrower Vikas Gowda (2000) were the other two to compete in the NCAA circuit.
He studied business administration at Kansas State University. After completing his academic session, he joined the corporate sector in USA and also pursued athletics. With grit and determination, the promising athlete is mixing sports and corporate job, which is considered an unconventional career in India.
The national champion says he is totally focussed on scaling new heights in high jump. While he was doing all the right things to cross the bar at 2.32m, he wasn’t able to execute it on the ground.
“It was quite frustrating and started weighing on my mind as I wasn’t able to improve my performance. I was doing all the right things but nothing good was happening on the field,” recalled Shankar.
“I thought I might have reached a saturation point.”
To overcome psychological barriers, Cliff Rovelto, an athletics expert at Kansas State University, advised him to do multiple events, including hurdles and sprinting to develop different muscle groups that would eventually improve jumping skills.
“Initially, it was hurdles and sprinting. Gradually I started enjoying other events like throwing. It was good fun to test myself over different events,” he said about enjoying multiple events.
The two-day decathlon event comprises 10 disciplines. Athletes compete in 100m sprint, long jump, shot put, high jump and 400m on the first day. While 110m hurdles, discus throw, pole vault, javelin throw and 1500m are conducted on the second day.
“I enjoy combined events competition. It gives me a chance to look forward to the next day if the first day doesn’t go as expected,” added the 24-year-old decathlete.
From being lean and having a thin frame of a high jumper, Shankar has become stronger and muscular.
“My body has started adapting to combined events practice sessions. Working different muscle groups and adapting to a high level of work capacity has transformed my body,” he explained.
Advantage of the environment
Spending nearly six years in USA and competing in the NCAA, has given him a different perspective towards sports and life.
“Young athletes in USA enjoy competing in sports. It’s kind of like going out and having fun. They train smarter and perform better,” Shankar explained.
“Young athletes compete in sports and if they don’t excel at the national level, they move on.”
In India, says the national champion, youngsters don’t have that kind of luxury as they come from lower middle-class families where job security is the priority while sports is a gateway to escaping poverty.
“There should be an element of enjoyment, which is missing in the Indian sports system,” Shankar added.
“There are several sprinters in USA who have the calibre to clock 10.20 seconds in the 100m dash. If they aren’t able to make it big in sports, they move on and do something else.”
Curiosity over coaching methods
Shankar says he is always curious to know why he has been asked to do a particular workout. He says there shouldn’t be a communication barrier between the coach and the athlete.
“To grow in sports, there should be understanding between an individual athlete and a coach. Generally, majority of the athletes in India blindly follow coaches’ advice,” believes Shankar. “A healthy discussion brings out better results.”
In his case, he is always inquisitive about what he has to do and how will it enable him to grow both on and off the field.
“Coaches in India are good but again the majority of them aren’t able to communicate properly. The confidence level is not there. Maybe there is some kind of mental block. With more international exposure, the Indian coaching system will improve,” he opined.
Fighting for what is right
The promising Delhi athlete believes in clean sports. “I always believe in hard work and don’t like to take short-cut routes to fame. On several occasions I have come across state-level athletes using unfair means (doping) to improve their performance. It is a sad state of affairs. In competitive sports, it takes time to improve and there is no scope of taking a short cut,” he added.
The international athlete fought for his rights in the build-up to the 2022 Commonwealth Games. He questioned the functioning of AFI prior to the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games as he was excluded from the national team despite achieving the qualification mark in men’s high jump.
Eventually, on the directives of Delhi High Court, he got a chance to compete at the Commonwealth Games and won the high jump bronze.
“I don’t read too much into the past and like to move on. I believe there should be a healthy relationship between the federation and the athletes.”
Spending time in Bellary
Shankar’s move to IIS, Bellary is more due to lack of facilities in Delhi. Recovery from a gruelling decathlon competition wouldn’t have been possible in Delhi, said Shankar.
“The IIS has good facilities under one roof which aren’t available back in Delhi. There is no vaulting pitch and equipment at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. It’s a sad state of affairs,” he added.
“Between the national inter-state competition and Asian Championships, there is little to recover and regain fitness. To recover faster and stay away from distraction, I shifted to Karnataka for a week.”
According to Shankar, he will have more time to prepare for the Asian Games scheduled to be held in September.
“I have three months for the Hangzhou Asian Games. There will be adequate time to iron out the grey areas,” he added.