Tejaswin Shankar is not your regular athlete. Not a regular medal-winning athlete at the Commonwealth Games. Not even a medal-winning high-jumper; he's already added the decathlon to his repertoire and plans to focus on that going forward. Oh, and he's also an accountant with Deloitte in the USA.
But what makes him truly special among Indian athletes is that he took on the system, fought for his right to compete at CWG, and won.
On Wednesday, Tejaswin Shankar started his high jump final at 2.10m. He loped his way to the bar, a quick shuffle lengthening to those trademark long strides, the fifth one a longer, floaty one, before that incredible take off. It's incredible to watch: the way he - and his colleagues - make the human body look oh, so capable of flight. If only for a brief moment.
2.10m, cleared on first attempt, bar lightly grazed, but very much intact.
Tejaswin Shankar wasn't even supposed to be competing at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. And wouldn't have been if the Athletic Federation of India had their way.
India's (multiple) national record holder had not made the cut since he had spent the year training and competing in the USA. India's athletic federation said since he had neither competed in an Indian nationals nor sought permission for this 'foreign training-cum-competition, they couldn't possibly select him.
- ESPN India (@ESPNIndia) August 4, 2022
2.15m, cleared on first attempt, an absurd amount of room to spare.
All this despite him being the NCAA 2022 champion, despite him making the high cutoff AFI had set high jumpers - 2.27m. He was the only Indian who did this season... or ever.
So he resigned himself to his fate. Then he un-resigned and took the AFI to the Delhi High Court. Let that sink in: athletes in India, where federations and sports bodies control everything and everyone, rarely have the means to go against officialdom.
The court saw wisdom in his appeal and said: "These are record holders and you don't let them go... He [Shankar] is a medal prospect. Let it not be an ego problem." The judge, Jasmeet Singh, also said: "An athlete has a career of four to five prime years, he/she should be given maximum opportunity... If it was in my hand I would have sent everyone."
2.19m, first attempt, neat and clean and an appropriate distance between him and the bar.
The AFI, unable to say no to the court, then passed it on to the Indian Olympic Association. Who passed it onto the Commonwealth Games Federation. If ever there were medal events for passing the buck...
2.22m, first attempt, daylight between bar and Shankar. He falls, flips onto his knee (in the trademark superhero landing pose), cups his hand to his ear and asks where the volume is at. Alexander Stadium roars. He's a showman, he's good at what he does, and the crowd loves him.
The CGF approved his application at the last minute. So last-minute that he had his visa in his hand only on the day after the Games' opening ceremony ended. He was sat at home watching that ceremony in his lungi. Hoping and praying that he'd be a part of the closing one perhaps.
2.25m, first attempt, calf smashes into the bar. Second, his backside. Currently in third, with everyone behind fouling out, he passes his third attempt. He'll get one chance in the next where the two above him will get the usual three.
"I never want to use [the confusing pre-Games] as an excuse," Tejaswin said afterwards. "I'm not one to say I couldn't train well or anything like that. Every athlete goes through things like this. I came here with a goal. Not to sound cocky, but I saw the list of participants, and I knew I could get at least the bronze."
2.28m, first and only attempt. Clatters into the bar. Doesn't matter, there are only two jumpers remaining in the competition.
His prediction has come true: Bronze medal, men's high jump, Commonwealth Games 2022, Tejaswin Shankar.
His strategy, on focusing on the early jumps, ensuring no misses, ensured that what happened toward the end didn't cost him a place on the podium.
The high jump (like the pole vault) is a rather unique event: there's no limit to what you can achieve. If you can jump a height inside three attempts, you can just keep raising the bar. Repeatedly.
It's slow-burn, but like the best kind of slow-burn drama reaches incredible levels of drama toward the climax. To keep your nerve towards the end takes a special kind of calmness. It's only that calmness that has seen Tejaswin through the insane drama of the previous three months. That calmness that allows him to put everything on the backburner post the event and focus on the now, on the joy.
His plans now? Go back to the United States, and join work at Deloitte as an accountant in Kansas City. Oh, and continue training to be a decathlete (not just high jump) to break the decathlon national record, to compete for India in the 2023 Asian Games. As a decathlete. "Yup, that's the plan," he laughs. "9-5 accountant, 5-9 decathlete."
Sounds like an impossible brag, but the confidence the man has in himself is absolute and that image it conjures - suit and tie making way for India jersey at the snap of his fingers - doesn't seem so farfetched. Tejaswin Shankar, not your regular CWG medal-winning athlete.