Murali Sreeshankar has been one of the best performing long-jumpers in the world this year. He has crossed the 8.20m mark thrice in 2022. In fact, two of the top-five jumps in the world this year belong to him [8.36m and 8.31m].
Riding on his form, Sreeshankar produced another gold-medal-winning effort on Saturday when he jumped 8.23m at the Inter-State championships in Chennai.
With just two attempts left, Sreeshankar hadn't crossed the 8m mark and was trailing Muhammed Anees Yahiya [8.15m] by a fair margin. The old Sreeshankar would have gotten nervous and let the pressure piling up inside him get the better of him. But not Sreeshankar 2.0.
Jump five: 8.23m, gold.
Rubbing shoulders with the likes of Tokyo Olympics gold medallist Miltiadis Tentoglou and World Indoors silver medallist Thobias Montler at the World Indoors this year has equipped Sreeshankar to take the bull by the horns.
"The experience of competing with these guys helped me. Earlier, there would be situations when I used to panic a lot. I would get very anxious and technically also it would be bad. But now I know I will get it. Even if I don't get it in the fifth jump, I know I will get it in the sixth jump. That's [where] the experience [counts]."
Sreeshankar, who has now taken up an MSC course in statistics, feels an "8.35m jump, considering the current situation, is a medal [at the Worlds]."
Despite snapping on the heels of the world's best, he feels he's not in that league. Yet.
"I'm not [on the same level] as Tentoglou. Juan Miguel Echevarria and he are at a different level. But I'm slowly getting into that league. It's a process, it will take time. The same happened with Tentoglou. In 2017 and 2018 he couldn't qualify for the Worlds and in 2019 he qualified for the final. In 2021 he won the Olympics. Suddenly you go to the Worlds and win...it's possible but not realistic. There's always a process."
A part of that process also involves top-level competition in India. And it helps that there are three jumpers now who've eased their way past the 8m mark.
"The 8m mark was more like a mental barrier. When I jumped 8.26m, Anees also jumped 8.00m last year and after that Jeswin [Aldrin] jumped 8.20m [this year]. That mental barrier is not there anymore. Everyone's pushing each other."
And what makes it all the more enjoyable he feels is that they back each other, which in turn raises the level of competition. "We don't see each other as competitors. We see each other as friends. When I'm jumping, Anees is there to support me. When Jeswin (Aldrin) jumps, we all support him. Because of this mutual connection we have, we can raise the standard. Take the case of the triple jumpers in the national camp: they stay together and are more like brothers. They do everything together. That's the connection they have. I was so hyped up when I was watching one of their training sessions. It was more like the Calicut Federation Cup competition (laughs)."
When they're not competing, the quartet, including Praveen Chithravel, bonds over its mutual love for memes and south Indian movies.
"The latest now is KGF II. Anees and the team watch all the movies but my dad [his coach, Murali] won't allow me (laughs). That's the main problem. I follow memes a lot - most of the pages I follow on Instagram are meme pages. I'm updated with the memes. Aaah, he's there [dad peeping from the end of the corridor].
"The last time I went for a movie was in 2016. I had my 12th board exams after that. He's (my father) not interested in movies. I watch movies on Netflix but I take 2-3 days to watch one movie. I don't have permission to stay beyond midnight. And whenever I put on my headset he says, 'you are always putting them on'. But for a big goal, we have to sacrifice some things, so it's okay," he says in earnest.
The one problem left to solve is completing a dope test on time. It took two hours and four bottles of water before he could complete the urine test and leave the stadium on Saturday night. "I usually drink four bottles of water. This routine of jogging also helps," he'd said with a wry smile. He admits this "event" is sometimes just as challenging as the one on the track.