Even as the Indian domestic athletics season came to an end with the Open Nationals last week, the absence of one competitor was particularly noticeable. Tejaswin Shankar, who holds the national record of 2.26m, is only 19-years old and among the most promising athletes of his generation but has not taken part in a domestic competition since the Inter-State Championships in July.
There is a perfectly good reason for his absence though. Tejaswin is currently training at Kansas State University (KSU), where he is a student on a four-year scholarship. While studying for a degree in business administration, Tejaswin will also be participating in the Division 1 - the highest level of intercollegiate athletics sanctioned by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
When he joined KSU on August 13, the 195 cm tall Tejaswin became only the second Indian track and field athlete to receive a full scholarship to a college in the USA (and the first in nearly half a century - triple jumper Mohinder Gill also received a scholarship in the 1970s).
Among colleges in the USA, KSU, under athletics coach Cliff Rovelto is particularly renowned for its track and field program. Erik Kynard, who won a high jump silver at the 2012 Olympics, is a former student and currently an assistant coach at KSU. So was Jesse Williams, the 2007 World Champion in the high jump. The current NCAA champion Christoff Bryan also wore the KSU Wildcats jersey.
Tejaswin though wasn't expecting to be wearing the KSU wildcats jersey until very recently. It was only a chance encounter with Gary Calvert, the erstwhile national javelin throw coach, that set him on the path to the collegiate circuit. Shortly after setting the the national record at the 2016 National Junior Championships, Tejaswin was training in Bangalore, when he decided to visit his friend and national record holder in the javelin throw, Neeraj Chopra.
"I met coach Calvert along with Neeraj. Coach asked me what my plans for college were and I honestly didn't have any. I thought I would go to whichever college in Delhi University would give me admission in the sports quota," says Tejaswin, who was a student of New Delhi's Sardar Patel School.
Instead Calvert insisted Tejaswin apply to colleges in the USA. "He helped me out first with my application to Georgia University and then Kansas State. He didn't know coach personally, but he mailed the coach with my jump video from the Junior Nationals. If I had to credit someone, I would say coach Calvert was about 90 percent responsible in getting me admitted." says Tejaswin.
Tejaswin recalls he was preparing for his board exams when he got a call from an American number on his mobile phone. It was Rovelto. "I was contacted by Garry Calvert who was working in India as the national javelin coach in 2016. He was assisting Tejaswin in finding a university. Tejaswin was the first Indian we had looked at but his jump of 2.26m was very good," says Rovelto over email.
What appealed to Tejaswin was Rovelto's relative disinterest in his personal best jump. "Most coaches are impressed when they hear about my record. But coach Rovelto wanted to know what my second and third best jumps were. He wanted to know about my triple jump (Tejaswin won the junior national title in the event last year). He wanted to confirm that I didn't just have a lucky day but that I was consistent. That was what a really experienced coach does," says Tejaswin.
Just to ensure there were no nerves, Tejaswin would get a call in a couple of weeks from Erik Kynard. "I could not believe it. This is someone I had watched on Youtube and idolized and suddenly I was speaking to them. It is like jackpot lag gayi," he says.
Although he does not say as much, Tejaswin had probably reached the end of his tether competing in India, struggling in apathetic conditions. At the 2016 Junior Nationals, his national record was in jeopardy since no dope control officials had deigned to show up at the competition in Coimbatore.
After a slow start to the year owing to a back injury, Tejaswin wasn't informed about the trials to select an athlete for the high jump competition at the Asian Athletics Championships in Bhubaneshar. When he did make his comeback at the Senior Interstate Championships in July, scheduling issues resulted in him competing with several minutes of break between jumps in pouring rain. He still managed to clear 2.23m, which was the best by an Indian this year. Despite that performance, he would have been expected to wait for the Open Nationals as his next competition had he stayed on in India.
In New Delhi, even training would be hard. With no indoor facility, practice at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium would often be cancelled due to rain. It had become especially hard with the stadium being appropriated for use in the U-17 World Cup. "It makes no sense to take part in one competition and then have to sit and watch myself do nothing for two months" he says.
It is an assessment shared by Olympian Anju Bobby George who trained with American coach Mike Powell in the months leading up to the 2004 Olympics where she finished sixth. "It is a very good for Tejaswin that he is going to compete in the NCAA. The big difference between India and the USA isn't just in the kind of facilities that are provided but in the intensity and frequency of tournaments. Unless you compete regularly you can't hope to improve," she says.
For the moment, Tejaswin isn't competing. "At this point in time we are only doing general conditioning. We do our strength training in the morning before classes and the work out in the afternoon," says coach Rovelto. Tejaswin is adjusting to a completely different lifestyle. "I'm rooming in an apartment outside campus with a rugby player and a discus thrower who came second in the NCAA this year. It's a bit strange," he says.
According to Rovelto, Tejaswin will have a low-key competition in early December just before the semester class finals while his collegiate indoor season will begin in earnest in January. Tejaswin has simple targets for next year. "At the Inter-State Championships, I might have been able to clear 2.27m if it was not raining. But my goal is to clear 2.30m," he says.
It is a target that will require him to retool not just his skills but also his training cycle. "Most Indian athletes struggle to peak for the Commonwealth and Asian Games in August because they prioritise the Open Nationals in September. That's just how our calendar has been drawn. But because the indoor season in the NCAA starts in January, I will be able to compete until March. If I am able to do well there, then at the Commonwealth Games, I won't be one of those athletes who is struggling to peak," he says.
Tejaswin admits that it will be a challenge having set the bar as high as he has. His goal for 2018 is not just to compete but to succeed at the Commonwealth and Asian Games. "Now that I have done this, I have no excuse not to perform. I have incredible facilities. I am training with perhaps the world's best coach, who has trained so many Olympic medalists and athletes.I have an Olympic medalist in Erik Kynard, who is both my training partner and coach. This is the ultimate place where an aspiring athlete would like to go and train. There is no reason for me to fail," he says.