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Leap of faith

Tejaswin Shankar, 19, has the potential to make a mark on the world stage.

Tejaswin Shankar, 19, has the potential to make a mark on the world stage.   | Photo Credit: V. Raju

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India’s high jumpers have had little help from the system. But they haven’t stopped believing in themselves — and the results over the last two years suggest something big could be coming

As the six high jumpers carry the huge pole vault bed from the storage room to the synthetic track at Kochi’s Maharaja’s Stadium where they train, one gets a sense of the many obstacles they have to overcome.

These are no ordinary athletes; almost everyone in the group is a national champion or medallist. Gayathry Sivakumar is the youngest of the lot at 17, already the inter-State National women’s champion. There is Geo Jose, the country’s tallest jumper and the junior National champion. Angel P. Devasia, the National Open women’s silver medallist and varsities National champion, is part of the group, as are Manu Francis and Libia Shaji, top jumpers both.

“We don’t even have a high jump bed,” says Manoj T. Thomas, the national-level high jumper who coaches them. “We use a pole vault bed, and even that is well past its use-by date. We don’t have anything for our workouts here, we are supposed to use a lot of hurdles for our training sessions, but there aren’t many.”

Still, there’s a feeling of camaraderie. The sessions are filled with fun and laughter.

“We are like family,” says Gayathry, who has set a series of National Records in various age categories. “And since our coach Manoj is also an active athlete and often jumps with us during training, there is a competitive feel to our sessions.”

Despite the many limitations, the group in Kochi is fortunate to have this sense of community. For, high jumpers are the orphans of Indian athletics — and for no fault of theirs. Till about three years ago, they had a national camp. Ukrainian Yevgeniy Nikiten, who once coached former world champion Bohdan Bondarenko, trained them.

But the stunning rise of Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim, the current world champion and the second best jumper in history (personal best: 2.43m), and Syria’s World bronze medallist Majd Eddin Ghazal, have hurt the sport badly in India.

The Athletics Federation of India (AFI) felt that since the Asian standard was virtually the world standard, it would be tough for Indians to win medals at the Asian Games and Asian Championships. The foreign coach was sent back and the national camp wound up. This threw the sport into disarray.

The athletes had to fend for themselves. Unable to find a proper set-up for high jumpers in the country, Sreenith Mohan, a very promising junior who was part of Nikiten’s camp, left for Qatar last month with hopes of joining Mutaz Barshim’s camp. Others have made the best of what they have and persevered. This has paid off.

Now, the high jumpers are back with a vengeance and one can’t ignore them any longer.

“The last two years have been great in India with four to five jumpers going over 2.20m,” says Tejaswin Shankar, the big reason for the current feel-good factor.

In November 2016, the Delhi youngster rekindled hopes for athletes of his ilk by breaking Hari Shanker Roy’s 12-year-old men’s National Record, clearing 2.26m at the Junior Nationals in Coimbatore. Shankar was the third-best under-20 jumper in the IAAF’s world list that year.

And a week ago, the 19-year-old raised the National Record to a stunning 2.28m at the Big 12 Indoor Championships in the US.

The girls too have been raising the bar in a big way. Haryana’s Rubina Yadav, an explosive jumper, sailed over 1.81m at the Junior Nationals in Guntur late last year, an effort that put her in the top eight of the world’s under-18 athletes.

Clearly, the sport is waiting for the AFI to take quick action to match the high flyers’ fantastic rise.

“I wouldn’t compare our high jump progress to the javelin [where India has the current under-20 world champion in Neeraj Chopra],” says Shankar, now studying business at Kansas State University in the US. “Javelin is a different case, we now have two or three throwers over 80m, a highly respected mark at the world level.

“But if the triple jump and long jump can be classified as future prospects and have a top foreign coach, then I feel the high jumpers deserve something too.”

Shankar currently trains with 2012 London Olympics silver medallist Erik Kynard at Kansas under respected American coach Cliff Rovelto, and feels the presence of Mutaz Barshim and Majd Ghazal in Asia could be a blessing for Indians.

“They have raised the level in Asia, which is also a benchmark for everyone. If we are able to get to that standard, then it will put us in a great position when we go to the World Championships,” he explains.

The youngster has tweaked his technique slightly and 2.30m, which could take him closer to the world level, may not be far away.

“After this jump [2.28m], I am really excited and I think the best time for a 2.30m jump would be right at the Commonwealth Games [in Gold Coast, Australia, in April]. All the preparations are being directed towards that,” he says.

That, in a way, shows the progress the sport has made in the country, a climb that the athletics bosses should find hard to ignore.

And happily, Shankar is not alone. For the first time in Indian athletics history, three men finished above 2.20m at the National Open in Chennai in September. The top two, Railway’s Siddarth Yadav and Services’ V. Bharathi, cleared 2.23m while another Services athlete, K.S. Anil, went over 2.21.

Shankar could just prove to be the Neeraj Chopra of his sport. He has age on his side and promises to open up a whole new world for Indian athletics.

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2020 2:27:50 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sport/other-sports/leap-of-faith/article22912240.ece

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