Higher, further, faster: Tejaswin Shankar hungry for more after heptathlon national record

Tejaswin Shankar competes in the men's high jump final at Carrara Stadium during the 2018 Commonwealth Games. AP Photo/Dita Alangkara

It's a Sunday night in Manhattan, Kansas and double national record holder Tejaswin Shankar is hooked on a Zoom call with a quartet of Indian journalists, explaining his curious choice of competition. The 22-year-old Indian high jumper set a national record in heptathlon at the DeLoss Dodds invitational, an intercollegiate indoor event in Kansas City, USA on Saturday - just a month after he learnt how to hold a pole.

A national record holder in high jump, Tejaswin is mildly dismissive of the gravitas of his most recent feat. "It feels good...like I have accomplished something. Two national records...Of course we have to look at the standard of the record as well. If a high jumper can break a heptathlon national record, I guess we have to go a long way before we can call ourselves an athletics superpower." With 5650 points, Tejaswin who turned out for his University team Kansas State, went past the previous mark of 5561 by PJ Vinod set in 2008.

Tejaswin, who is currently on a scholarship program at the Kansas State University, pursuing a concurrent Bachelors and Masters course in accounting, dabbled in pentathlon briefly, pacing the university teams initially before he began beating them. His coach then pushed him, for the sake of progression, to try his hand at the seven-event competition of heptathlon.

In Saturday's contest, he started with a win in the 60m dash in 7.21 seconds, followed by a distance of 7.31m in the long jump, managed only 11.90 m in shot put to finish last, then topped the high jump event with 2.25 m and the 60m hurdles clocking 8.32 seconds. His first attempt at pole vault - a less than impressive 3.75m - was followed by a robust timing of 2:41:22 in the 1000m. Tejaswin wants to try his hand at decathlon next in a couple of years, just for kicks.

"It's important to be an athlete with a broad base and multiple skills before being a high jumper. Most of these events are complimentary to one another. The last three steps in high jump and long jump are pretty similar, the only difference is in high jump the takeoff is outside the body while in long jump it's under the body and you move forward. If you look at it, more than 50 per cent comprised of scores from jumps and sprints and a very small percentage from shot put and pole vault," he says.

"Honestly, competing for two days was hard. Usually, I'm stressed one day before the event and for two hours or so during the competition. But in a two-day multi event, you not only end up thinking about it two days before the start, your mind is constantly figuring possibilities and calculations to compensate scores if you've messed up one event. It's not the event that tires you, but just being in that competition atmosphere for two days. I was really naive before I started doing combined events, and just added up all my personal best scores which was around 6000 points. I ended up scoring 5600, which is a massive difference. So it's more about what your averages are and not necessarily your best score."

Tejaswin's personal best, also the current national record in high jump, stands at 2.29, well shy of the Tokyo Olympic qualifying mark of 2.33. He's worried about his peers back in India who haven't had domestic competitions in close to a year now. The athletics season has gotten underway with the junior Fed Cup that concluded last weekend, the seniors competition is scheduled to open up with the Race Walk championship (13-14 Feb), followed by the first Grand Prix in Patiala (18 Feb). Tejaswin plans to compete in India at the final qualifying event in June, the national inter-state meet.

"National meets in India haven't been happening, the Asian Championship has been cancelled. Lots of friends in India scrambling for ways to train. It's a challenge for senior athletes to stay away from competitions for so long," says Tejaswin, "It's hard to think of the possibility of qualifying for the Olympic Games when there are no qualification events happening. As a collegiate athlete, it's not possible to travel everywhere for ranking points. I'm just focusing on getting the 2.33 mark. Everybody is running short of time. In fact, we don't know what the definition of time is anymore or whether the Olympic Games are going to happen at all. I see these reports of the Games being cancelled but I try to avoid them. I don't click on them or read them."

Tejaswin also has concerns about the low transition rate of young talented high jumpers back in India into seniors of reckoning and the lack of sufficient dope testing for elite athletes by NADA. "I make sure to fill my whereabouts every day. I haven't been tested yet but I'm looking forward to being tested soon so all my marks are ratified. The last time the only thing that came between my national record and not being ratified was the lack of dope sample. The university does regular testing, most of the time though it's for recreational drugs."

An audit and assurance intern with Deloitte, his days are divided between work, track and studies. In diving into different disciplines, Tejaswin looks to simplify the mechanics of his pet event - high jump.

"You don't have to gallop or run like a high jumper. Ultimately, you have to run fast, the adjustment is only because of running on a sharp curve. So I'm trying to run as normally and mechanically sound as possible. With right repetitions, I can change bad habits in my high jump approaches. I just need to run in a straight line, followed by a curve and jump as high as possible," he says, "During quarantine, the whole time I was wondering 'ok what do I want to do next'. Turns out the best advice I gave myself was that Olympics or no Olympics, I want to jump 2.33. Even if the Olympics doesn't happen, I'll still be happy to have met that goal."