Three months before my father died, he told me to play cricket or leave sports: Tejaswin Shankar, India’s high jump hope at CWG 2018
Like every other Indian kid, he had always dreamt of playing cricket for the country – at least until 2013, that was his ultimate dream. Who knows, maybe he had even dreamt of becoming India’s best fast bowler, helping the team win the World Cup at a packed Wankhede Stadium or a sold-out Eden Gardens.
Three years later, though, he was running towards a bar placed at a measured height between two standards at full pace, much like he would be running in with a ball in his hand, ready to shock the batsman with a bouncer.
But instead of running in and throwing the ball, this time, Tejaswin Shankar would run in, use the Fosbury Flop method of jumping, soar over the bar and land on the crash mat, breaking the national record in the process.
Dreams of cricket, but excels in track and field
“I used to play cricket before and I still enjoy cricket. I used to love cricket,” Tejaswin recounted, in an exclusive interaction with Sportskeeda. “But then I was not really any good at it. That’s when I realised that I could do something else.
“My school coach, Sunil Kumar, made me realise how good I can be if I took up a track and field sport. Then, I started doing high jump and started taking part in competitions. That’s how my journey started,” he said, without any hint of regret in his voice.
“I started athletics to be better in cricket, but I never thought I would be an athlete in the future, or break the national record at some time, for that part of the matter.
“I was in class 8 at that time and I was already 5’10”, which is pretty tall for a teenager. Although I was tall and lanky, and I used to play cricket, I wasn’t fast or fit. It was my growth years and I wasn’t very strong either. That’s when my coach spotted me and suggested that if I start developing myself and if I start lifting weights, then I might become a better athlete,” the youngster recalled.
Soon, he began enjoying high jump thoroughly. “Gradually, I started enjoying athletics because it is a raw sport at the end of the day. And, the simplicity of the game – I mean, it’s so simple, you’ve to just run in and jump – that’s what attracted me,” he said.
‘There’s no money in athletics’, Tejaswin’s father told him
Despite his obvious talent in the field, though, his father, Harishankar, was not a big fan of Tejaswin taking it up seriously.
“It did not matter whether I enjoyed it or not. My father did not like it and so, I should not have liked it. I mean, he resisted when I took up high jump… he did not want me to do athletics because as you know, every parent knows what other things are associated with athletics. Every other day you see reports in newspapers someone has been caught in a dope scandal or some other thing," he explained.
“Moreover, when they look at athletics, they see that there is no money, especially when you compare it to cricket. That’s why my dad wanted me to play cricket. But at the end of the day, I wasn’t as talented in cricket. Now, when I look back, I’m happy that I realised that at the right time,” he said.
An incident in 2014, however, turned his life around. He had taken part in his first nationals --the school nationals, in Ranchi, where he had finished third. The young boy’s joy knew no bounds. He called up his father immediately to give him the good news and things were all going well. But once he returned home, a tough decision lay ahead of him.
“When I got back home, my father said, ‘Hey, listen. I don’t want you to do athletics but you keep going to competitions. So, we have to strike it even. If you want to pursue athletics, then you have to take up your studies seriously’,” Tejaswin said.
Deciding what you want to do in the future is perhaps the biggest decisions of one’s life. Imagine the pressure when you have to take it at just 15 years of age. However, Tejaswin was no ordinary boy. He promised his father that he would not let athletics hamper his education. But then he had not known what would happen in three months' time.
“Three months later, even before I had realised why he had asked me to study harder, he passed away,” he said even as his voice grew heavy. “That’s when I understood what he had meant. He really wanted me to pay attention to myself and my future rather than waste my time at a sport which has no secure future.”
Even now, not a single day goes by for Tejaswin when he is not thinking about his father. But he never lets that affect his performance on the track. “However much I hated him when I was a kid, after all, he is my dad. I think about him every day. But I have never let that come in my way. Right after he had passed away, I took part in a national championship and that’s when I won my first gold medal at that level.”
“When I think about my dad, I associate him with positivity and for all the good things. I don’t remember him for the times he shouted at me or scolded me,” he asserted.
The Bhaag Milkha Bhaag moment
2015 was perhaps the most crucial year for Tejaswin in terms of his career in athletics. It was the year when he came into the limelight, it was the year when he made his first mark. Having won numerous medals at the national meets, breaking numerous records on the way, the Delhi lad was selected to represent India at the Asian Youth Championships.
It was the first time the young Tejaswin was representing the country at any major event. It was a proud moment for him and of course, he went on to bag a medal. In the same year, he went on to bag the gold at the World School Championships, where he jumped 2.07m. Before that, no one had crossed the 2m mark in the school championships. He also bagged another gold at the Commonwealth Youth Games.
“When I look back at 2015, I realise that it was perhaps the most important year of my life. I got my first real break when I was selected for the U18 national team. That was the first time I was representing my country, it was a huge thing for me.
“Also, it was around that time that the movie Bhaag Milkha Bhaag came out. I had just watched the movie, I felt really proud that I was also a part of a select few Indians who wear the India jacket. That feeling was surreal.”
One year later, he would jump 2.22m at National Open Athletics in Lucknow to win the gold before the smashing the 12-year-old national record at the National Junior Athletics Championships in Coimbatore with an effort of 2.26m. “When I broke the national record back in 2016, I was very young. It changed me, it changed my personality and not in a good way. I mean, that personality is not something that you associate with good athletes,” the brutally honest Tejaswin admitted.
“That’s when it dawned on me that if I wanted to jump higher, I would have to forget that I’m a national record holder. And when I left for the States, my coach gave me this one parting advice. He said, ‘If there are 200 countries, then there are 200 national record holders. That’s nothing you should be proud of. But there is only one Commonwealth or Olympic champion.'"
‘Academics is a stress buster for me’
Balancing academics and sports side by side is perhaps the most difficult thing for any young athlete. For Tejaswin, though, he has learnt to use it in an altogether different sense. Unlike many, for whom it is a burden, academics helps take the pressure off his mind.
“I think it was back in school when I started trying to figure out the balance. Sometimes when I used to miss my exams, my teachers never let me off. They always pushed me to pursue my education properly. Even my mother always stressed on the importance of education.
“Because I was always pushed to focus on my education as well as athletics, going to college, I never felt that pressure of academics.
“Now, academics is more of a stress buster for me. Once the season starts, with all the travelling and everything, you tend to pressurize yourself by thinking too much about the competition. That’s when academics helps me relax and takes my mind off things,” he said.
Until a couple of years back, Tejaswin had planned to apply for Delhi University. However, a meeting with Garry Calvert, one-time coach of javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra, in Bengaluru in 2016, put him on his path to the United States. That’s when he got to know about the athletics programme in the States. He got to know about the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the championships they organise.
“Initially, I was planning to apply for Delhi University. But then, after knowing about the scholarship programmes in the USA, I applied and got into the Kansas State University, which is one of the best universities for high jump. That’s when my collegiate career began, but I came back a few days back and broke the national record,” said Tejaswin, who is pursuing a Bachelors in Business Administration at Kansas State.
Originally hailing from Tamil Nadu, Tejaswin has lived almost his entire life in Delhi. Moving to the States, to an entirely different environment, was a big change for him. And like any other teenager, he had a difficult time adjusting to life in the States.
“In the beginning, it was very difficult for me to go to a foreign country where there are different types of people who come from different cultures. The environment is completely different. I was missing the food, I just wanted to go back home. But gradually, I got used to it,” he said.
‘For me, staying fit is the most important thing at the moment’
Injury layoffs are probably the toughest phase for any athlete. During these layoffs, an athlete, especially a young one, tends to think about the insecure future and whether or not he or she made the right decision.
For Tejaswin, this phase came in early 2017. “In January last year, I injured my lower back and that was one of the toughest phases of my life. I was training really hard at that time and aiming at big things,” he described, looking back at his injury.
“It was a freak accident. Most high jumpers injure their backs while doing the jumps, but I got injured while lifting weights.
“Anyway, the injury forced me out for six long months. I would try to practise but my back would hurt like anything. Because of that, I missed the Asian Championships last year which was held in Bhubaneshwar and then, I had to miss the World Championships in London.
“Those were the times when I thought that maybe I wasn’t made for this. Maybe, I had chosen the wrong path. But my coach motivated me, he made me realise why I took up athletics seriously; it was because I fell in love with it. And that’s why I think I want to continue to do it for as long as I can,” he said.
After making a successful comeback from injury, Tejaswin went on to break his own national record when he cleared 2.28m at last month's Federation Cup in Patiala. The same mark would have bagged him the silver medal at the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games.
On being asked how he is dealing with the burden of expectations from his countrymen who are hoping that he will bring back a medal from Gold Coast, Tejaswin replied, “Everyone keeps talking about my record-breaking jumps. I see posts coming up saying that if I jump as high as I jumped in Patiala, I could potentially win a medal at the Commonwealth Games, maybe even a gold. However, I don’t let these posts get to my head.
“For me, the most important thing now is to stay positive and stay fit… that’s the goal. I just want to jump higher than my mark in Patiala, I’m not thinking about any medals,” he signed off.