by Mervin LR
It was a great privilege to get to know one of the most promising young talents in long jump today and to explore his incredible career to date in more detail.
Long jump requires grace, explosive power, speed and precision in a combination demanded by no other sporting discipline. Sreeshankar makes it look easy. Still only 20, he has crossed the 8m mark three times in his nascent career now, the most recent of which was at the Indian Grand Prix V in Patiala and broke the national record last year, with an impressive 8.20m mark at the National Open Athletics Championship in Bhubneshwar.
Sreeshankar is just at the beginning of a stellar path of achievements and the next step is the IAAF World Athletics Championships, to be held in Doha, just two weeks away.
A family affair: The athletics connections run deep
Sreeshankar is gifted with some pretty spectacular DNA. He can likely chalk up his strength, speed and agility to his father, who stood out as the leading triple jumper in his times. His graceful form and flexibility comes from his mother, Bijimol, a former 800m runner.
And his sister Sreeparvathy, who is two years older, is also a talented heptathlete.
“My passion for athletics started at a very young age, since both my parents were into athletics. I used to go to grounds with them along with few of my friends,” narrates about his formative years.
Sreeshankar started his career majorly running in the 50m and 100m. He won medals, broke state records in the U-10 category before switching to long jump.
“I started my sports career as a sprinter as I majorly competed running in the lower categories,” he stated.
His interest in Long Jump sparked by the influence of his father.
Sreeshankar remembers not really taking long jump seriously at that first practice, but his dad saw seeds of greatness.
“Since, my dad was a triple jumper, my interest had turned towards long jump.”
In 2011, at the age of just 12, he broke the state record in long jump.
“I started Long Jump when I was in sixth standard. I broke the U-12 state record. I would say that’s the first milestone in my career as a long jumper.”
“From there onwards, I have developed huge passion for the sport and started practicing regularly,” said the Palakkad native.
Sreeshankar, who has done his schooling in Kendriya Vidyalaya, Palakkad said the school was “supportive all the time and encouraging always.”
“The teachers were really supportive right from the beginning because from the smaller classes, I was bringing lots of medals for my school and for my district. They never said ‘NO’ even if I go for any sort of competition.”
After showing promise at a range of events, he was selected to join the national camp in his early teens.
“When I was studying 10th, my dedication to Long Jump was rewarded when I won my first junior national medal.”
Sreeshankar who was very dominant at school, was asked about his transition from school to college. “The transition was also good and smooth because my dad gave me training.”
“My dad was very much supportive in the process till now which helped me to learn the sport in a professional manner. I was gradually growing better than before and there is always a room for improvement at every level,” he added.
Balancing sports and studies
Sreeshankar’s learning – both his athletics training and his Bachelor degree – is centered on Palakkad, where he studies at the Govt.Victoria College.
He is currently in his second-year pursuing B.Sc Mathematics believes he has coped well with competing in both the studies and sports.
“Managing sports and studies is not so difficult for me because Mathematics is one of my favorite subject. And I don’t’ find that difficult to cope with the portions. The only thing is that I should be available in all the classes and bit regular to the classes.”
During off-season, “I am always a regular to the classes. I used to catch up all the missed portion during that time.”
‘Abundance of talent’
On being asked where he currently trains and the grassroots culture at his place. He said: “I train most part of the year in my hometown, Palakkad – Medical college ground. We have got a nice track there; we have a well-maintained Long Jump field which is one of the best in India, but the only drawback is the wind during summer season.”
“There are huge amount of talent coming in from our place. You hear the name Palakkad, obviously, what comes to your mind – it’s just a small district in Kerala. No, it’s not like that. The place where I train currently, there are abundance of talents coming up and competing at the higher level.”
He further added that Palakkad and his ground has produced some fine talents in the recent years.
“Other than me, there is another girl who has represented our country in 2018 Youth Olympics Games. We have Asian Youth Champions in 400m training in our track. For all state meet and national meet, we have at least four or five medals winners from our ground. We have medalist from wide range of events – jumping events, sprinting events, hurdling events and even long-distance event.
During the early months of 2018 when Sreeshankar was just making his name, an appendix rupture forced him to undergo surgery which took him out of the game for more than 2 months.
“Last year was really terrible for me. If it was a normal appendix surgery then it won’t be a much problem, but things got critical because the organ ruptured inside my stomach. I never thought I would make a comeback before two years.”
Due to a liquid diet and no training, he lost significant body weight. He couldn’t muster enough strength to walk properly.
“I was put in an intensive care. I lost like 7kgs of my bodyweight. Then I was placed in liquid diet for almost 8 to 10 days. So, my body completely lost all its muscular strength and everything was gone. I was barely able to walk that time,” he said.
Not only that, it also poured water on his Commonwealth Games dreams. At the Asian Games, he could manage only a sixth-place finish with a best jump of 7.95m.
He “took his first steps of basics” before finally getting back on the field, which was described as his “tough times”.
The journey back was a very long one, and it was also met with many obstacles as the pain was sometimes too unbearable.
“After two weeks of my surgery, the doctors warned not to push myself. Coming back was so challenging. My body weight suddenly dropped from 65 kg to 59. It took 5 months to get back to my previous shape. My physical condition was so bad that I had to think twice before competing anywhere,” the 20-year-old said.
But he was certainly grateful to the people around him, and what they have done for him to be able to return to the field once again.
“I’m glad that everything turned out well for me. I got the support from my family and friends.”
“My dad helped to put me on my feet. He is the one who believed in me, worked with me, and helped me. He planned the preparatory schedule along with my doctor who works in Kochi. He has got me a good nutritionist; we are working together for some 2-3 months particularly focusing on the diet control and strengthening exercises.”
That 8.20m an ‘easy’ jump
But with his health restored in late 2018, all the despair he endured was quickly replaced by elation when the Kerala-born athlete broke the national long jump record sailing to 8.20m at the National Open Athletics Championships in Bhubaneswar.
He felt better after breaking the national record. He further explained that the he wasn’t conscious or eager to break the record in an Open National meet.
“I just wanted to keep myself free and jumped it. That jump was really an easy one. I didn’t put any kind of pressure or strain, that was easy one.”
Having created history after becoming one of the five Indians to cross the 8-m mark, he was asked if he thinks he could better the current record of 8.20.
“Of course,” he responded. “I want to break my National Record again and qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. That’s the primary aim for now. I wasn’t in a good condition this year as I had a knee injury in the beginning of the season. That’s why my progress is becoming slower.”
“Once I put my mind to anything; I know I can do it and that is my aim for this year consistently better and better my previous mark and I think at the moment 8.10m – 8.20m is possible.”
On JSW and competing in abroad
Sreeshankar had his first taste of how attractive athletics competitions can be in Europe as he won the silver with a wind-assisted 7.93m at the Pierre-Benite Envol meet, France.
The Sopot Grand Prix Athletics competition in Poland proved another upswing, as he won the Gold medal with a best jump of 7.78m.
Then another golden jump with 7.97m few days later at Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
JSW Sports – the country’s first listed sports entity plays a crucial role in supporting Sreeshankar in his quest to improve further.
“JSW helped me in many ways. Only this year, I could get the chance to compete in Europe. They have sent me abroad to the places like France, Denmark and Poland and the quality there is very good.
“The music is played is everywhere, there are fans cheering us from the terrace and fans coming up to you get your autograph – the scene is completely different in Europe.”
“The competition gave me taste of what international competition are really look like which is quite different from what we customarily see here.”
The mind of a long jumper
Sreeshankar says that his greatest weapon is his calm, cool demeanor at all times during a competition. Which is rare for a 20-year-old athlete. “I always try to maintain a cool and calm approach during my jump. If I strain myself, hardly I could get the jump I wanted.”
When asked if he has/had any rivals in the competition, he responds, “I don’t have any kind of rivals. I always try to maintain a friendly relationship with my peers.”
“They all are more like friends only. We have regular contacts with each other. Whenever we are jumping, we used to cheer for each other and if another jumper makes a good jump that pushes me to jump further. In that way, we have maintained a healthy relationship.”
‘My dad knows me inside out’
In February, his father Murali officially took over his coaching duties and as a man who know his son more than anyone for 20 years.
Asked if there’s any downside to having his father for a coach.
“The positive thing is that being dad as my coach – he knows me inside out. Every aspect of me like – how my body reacts to the climate and how my body reacts to different types of training. So, that has helped me a lot in gaining good performances in the past few years.”
“I don’t have a strict schedule of training. He knows me very well – If my body doesn’t react much to any workout then he doesn’t push me so hard. We always try to keep ourselves free from injuries. My dad knows when and how I jump perfectly. He gives me training according to that only,” said the JSW athlete.
In love with basketball
Not many people are aware of Sreeshankar’s affinity towards basketball. He has made no secret of his love of basketball. Same echoed when asked If you weren’t a high jumper, what other sport would you be playing?
“Basketball,” he said.
“I really like playing basketball during my off-season. My dad is also very good basketball player. He used to play in basketball leagues also even after finishing his sports career. But the only bad thing is my dad won’t allow me to play too often because it’s a bit injury prone.”
‘Target Paris 2024’
The charismatic Kerala native’s progress in the last two years has been impressive. Similar improvement over the next two years will make him a genuine medal contention at the big events.
The 20-year-old firmly believes that it is the dedication to the sport that helps him maintain his usual sang-froid through all the practice sessions.
Once again he reiterates that his long-term goal is the 2024 Paris Olympics, he is confident that If he jumps 8.20m consistently then he have a good chance of getting a medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics Games but on realistic terms by the time of 2024, he says he will more than ready for medals, “I’ll be more well-built and more stronger and I have more time to correct my technical aspects of the game as well. I will only 24 by the time. So, I can really aim for great performance like gold in Paris 2024.”
The best is yet to come
Asked about his confidence heading into IAAF World Championships, Doha, where he believes a repeat performance – or better – could be on the cards.
“I am very confident going out there. I was in good condition at Grand Prix, after that we had a small change of training mainly focusing towards my World Championships in Doha.”
“For weeks, I have been working on some new technical aspects and I hope to execute them well in this time. My first target is to qualify for the finals. In order to achieve that I need to jump between 8.00m to 8:10m, then I think I would make myself into the finals. I believe in myself fully that I can get into the finals. If everything goes perfectly and If I qualify for the finals. I will make a big jump in the finals. And it will be a big push helping me gain some self-confidence towards 2020 Tokyo Olympics,” he concluded.
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