<
>

CWG 2022: 'It takes one jump', Sreeshankar told himself, before leaping into history

Murali Sreeshankar poses with his silver medal in the men's long jump at the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images

'Keep calm. Keep calm. You've done this before. It just takes one jump'

That's what Sreeshankar Murali told himself before his fifth jump in the long jump final on Thursday night. India's record holder had made it to the final with the highest jump in qualification, 8.05m. But now he was struggling to find his groove. His first effort in the final was 7.60m, his second and third both 7.84m. He seemed to have nailed jump four, but it was called a foul for an infringement by a centimetre.

Frustration was writ large on his face. Just two jumps left. Fifth out of 12 - none of whom had a personal best close to Sreeshankar's. Pressure.

The old Sreeshankar would have crumpled. He'd been finishing "sixth-seventh, sixth-seventh"' in major events for some time now, jumping within himself, allowing mistakes to weigh on his mind, not improving marks after the first few jumps. That frustration, especially, of the foul on the fourth would have swallowed him.

The Sreeshankar of 2022, though, has seen 8m come and go way too many times to be overawed. "This is exactly what happened in June, in the inter-state tournament in Chennai," he said after the event. "I was jumping poorly, not coming close to 8m, trailing by a long margin. Till the fifth jump. So I kept telling myself to calm down, that I could do this." That day he pulled out 8.23m to win the event.

On Thursday, he hit the fifth perfectly, sailing 8.08m into the Birmingham night sky. Joint top with Bahamas' Laquan Nairn but second on count-back - Nairn's second-best jump (7.98m) was superior to Sreeshankar's (7.84m.)

'One jump'.

The sixth and final jump was a foul, again by the barest of margins, but that 'one jump' had won him Commonwealth Games silver - the first by an Indian man. It was also a showcase of his best qualities, the mental strength, the calmness.

At a more base level, it highlighted the aesthetic beauty of his act, that one perfectly nailed jump. A couple of quick small steps forward. A pause. A lean back, almost like he's winding himself up, and then fourteen long steps, pace increasing with each one till the last - where he takes to the air, defying gravity, taking two steps in the air before one foot extends to the side and the other forward just before landfall.

"You just need to give talent the time to [find themselves], to get groomed mentally and physically" Sreeshankar Murali

The man who fine-tuned that piece of art lived the moment with Sreeshankar. "Around that fourth jump, the tension..." said Murali S, his father and coach, and the man sitting at the sidelines in Birmingham. "It was cold today, and it was hard to remain warmed up. First three jumps, he wasn't getting the board at all. In fact, on the first jump, he did it almost 50cm from behind the board. Then I adjusted to get him closer to the board."

Murali's presence and constant advice have helped Sreeshankar stay on keel. Like they always have. In 2021, after a poor trip to the Tokyo Olympics, the Athletics Federation of India stripped Murali of his post in the national camp, and asked Sreeshankar to find a new coach. He refused.

"It was a tough time for our family. But we got together and decided that we'll keep doing this till we win at least one medal for India."

The thought of changing coaches never really entered either of their minds. "Coaches will come, give him some training and go. I'm with him 24x7, 365 days. Who knows him better?" asked Murali. "I've known him since Dr. Suma Natarajan placed him in these arms at the Kuppuswamy Naidu hospital at 1.20 am [on March 27, 1999]"

"It's not a big performance, it's far away from my personal best, but when it comes to global games like these... a medal is what's important." Sreeshankar Murali

He took unpaid leave, and kept at it with his son. "I just wanted to make him jump 8m once more. But this season he's had 20-30 jumps more than 8m."

This is something Sreeshankar noted as well, while thanking his father. The consistency he has found this season is remarkable. It's all about time, he said.

"Every athlete has gone through it," Sreeshankar said. "Keep legends like Carl Lewis and Mike Powell to one side, but every champion athlete has gone through these phases. The current Olympic champion Milti√°dis Tentoglou, for instance: he himself told me that he was in that seventh-sixth-fourth rut for a long time before Olympic gold happened. And he's staying in a different league now."

"It takes time," he said. "You just need to give talent the time to [find themselves], to get groomed mentally and physically."

He's been given that time in 2022, and he's arrived. Multiple national titles. A new personal best. Winning tournaments outside India. Finishing seventh on debut at both the indoor and outdoor world championships. And now that elusive major medal.

"It's not a big performance, it's far away from my personal best, but when it comes to global games like these," he said with a glance at the silverware hanging on his neck, "a medal is what's important."

While AFI officials joined Sreeshankar for his post-medal ceremony media interactions, Murali had been waiting outside, patiently. It was a bitterly cold night at the Alexander Stadium, the wind seeping into the bones. Murali had rolled his tracksuit jacket up all the way to the elbows, though. "Tonight, I don't feel cold," he grinned.

Once reunited, the father-son duo were planning to go for dinner at the Athletes' village. And then maybe a party or two?

"No celebration, no celebration," Murali said. There's the Monaco leg of the Diamond League coming up next week, after all. "Tomorrow evening he'll have a little bit of easy warming up."

And so they will be at it again. A day after India's best ever performance in the men's long jump in the Commonwealth Games history, they'll be stretching and jogging in preparation for their next tilt at history. For Murali and Sreeshankar, excellence is a pursuit that has no pit stops.