Mamba mentality and no parottas: Sreeshankar makes long jump to Tokyo

Sreeshankar broke his own national record and sealed Olympic qualification with a jump of 8.26m in Patiala on Tuesday. (File photo) MARTIN BUREAU/AFP via Getty Images

Murali Sreeshankar slept in an Usain Bolt jersey every night for months as a nine-year-old. It was a souvenir brought back by former 800m athlete and family friend Shiny Wilson from the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The five Olympic rings fill the walls, doors and grilles of their Palakkad home and sport is the unquestioned choice of meal-time discussion. Two years ago, in pursuit of his Tokyo goal, the 21-year-old gave up eating parottas, the layered, flaky flatbread made from refined flour that is ubiquitous to his home state, Kerala.

"The idea was to sacrifice one thing I love for my life's greatest dream," he tells ESPN. It didn't quite go in vain. On Tuesday, with a jump of 8.26m in his fifth and final attempt, Sreeshankar broke his own national record and announced his Olympic qualification at the Federation Cup in Patiala. For perspective, at the 2016 Rio Games, the fourth-place finish was an 8.25m effort. After his fifth jump, he punched his fist in the air, certain he'd pulled off something special. He then stood by the sandpit, hands on hips, waiting for the digital scoreboard to flicker to life and offer official confirmation. Once it did, he raised both arms and did a mini victory sprint.

"I feel happy," he says sheepishly. "But it's more like a shelter on our journey. It's still a long road. Practising the 'Mamba mentality' has helped."

Sreeshankar breached the 8m mark in all his jumps, comfortably surpassing his previous national record of 8.20 and the Tokyo qualification criteria of 8.22m. A basketball junkie, Sreeshankar swears by the late NBA legend Kobe Bryant's mantra of relentlessness, obsession and single-minded passion for the sport.

Coached by his father S Murali, a former triple jumper and silver medallist at the South Asian Games (mother KS Bijimol is a former 800m athlete), Sreeshankar used the uninterrupted months of non-competition during the pandemic to bulk up on core strength and work on his speed. Murali converted a portion of his terrace and the car porch of his brother's home to set up an ad-hoc gym facility for the young athlete. Once the restrictions eased, Sreeshankar received permission to resume training in the Palakkad government medical college premises. There were videos of him jumping over a row of plastic chairs lined up on the track.

"We bought all equipment including plyometric boxes to help him build his core, which was necessary to improve his landing," says Murali. "The other thing was quickening speed in his approach. He clocked under 10s on the hand speed indicator during practice."

Good sprinters, it is said, make good long jumpers. Once airborne, the jumper has little control over his flight course or distance, and it is the horizontal and vertical velocity he generates during the approach and take-off, respectively, that becomes crucial.

In March 2018, Sreeshankar spent over a week in the hospital after suffering a ruptured appendicitis, following which he found himself weaker, slower and low on energy reserves. Recovery from the surgery, doctors told him, would take at least two months. In June, he ended up winning his maiden international medal, a bronze at the Junior Asian Championship. The following year, he sustained a heel injury, an anathema for long jumpers, which laid him low for two months.

"Takeoffs were very painful then," says Sreeshankar. "My body feels a lot stronger now because of all the work I could put in over the last year. My run-up technique was quite poor in the previous IGP. I still have a lot of work to do before the Olympics.

Having a parent doubling up as coach can always be an extra challenge for an athlete. It means he knows what you eat, how you spend your time and what time you go to bed. Sreeshankar hasn't been to a movie theatre in five years and hasn't taken a trip with friends for as far back as he can recall.

"Sometimes when my wife buys parottas for me and my daughter, he'll come and sit beside us and look at it longingly, even sniff it from our plates and then walk away," Murali adds. "He is determined to not break his promise until the Olympics are over. No tours or outings for him. I don't restrict him regarding social media because that is our window to understanding what other athletes across the world are doing. Of course, there are occasional father-son standoffs. But he's an obedient boy so that makes my job a lot easier. If things work to plan, he will be on the Olympic podium in 2024. He'll be 24 then and at the perfect age to peak."

What about Tokyo? "If I can consistently cross 8.20m, I think I stand a chance of fighting for a medal," says Sreeshankar. "You will see me in the finals."