Tejaswin Shankar – Back fighting gravity, with eye on 2.33
The national high jump record holder is now re-setting as he chases Paris Olympics qualification in his pet event.
Having lived the high of winning an Asian Games decathlon silver in October, Tejaswin Shankar relished the downtime. That involved allowing himself the occasional chole bhature meal, catching up with friends, socialising with fellow competitors during the National Games in Goa. And getting engaged.
“It was important to get the job done at the Asian Games, and then it was important to just live for the next one month. Just have a blast,” the 24-year-old said.
The training spark lit up again, Tejaswin is back to getting his body up and running and building a foundation to sustain “a lot of competing” next season. Not in decathlon, where his 7,666 points in Hangzhou broke the national record but in high jump, where he is the national record holder and a 2022 Commonwealth Games bronze medallist.
Tejaswin is set to head back to the US to his earlier training base in Kansas City this month and stay there for the first half of 2024. “Next year, there’s only one goal — the Paris Olympics," he said.
To get there, the acutely self-aware Tejaswin realised decathlon was a long shot. So high jump, his favoured event before he switched to decathlon solely with the Asian Games in mind, has taken centre stage again. Tejaswin competed in just one standalone high jump meet this year — an indoor event in Boston in February — and won, jumping 2.26m. He pulled out of the World Championships, choosing to work towards being a decathlon medal winner in Hangzhou over a high jump also ran in Budapest. The qualification mark for the Paris Olympics is 2.33m while Tejaswin's personal best rests at 2.29m achieved in 2018.
“The next option (to qualify for Paris) is the ranking route. Last year, I competed in one meet and qualified for Budapest. If I can qualify for the Worlds based on winning one event; even if I finish 2nd or 3rd in other 5-6 ranked meets, I feel like I stand a good chance of making it to the Olympics,” he said.
A chunk of those 5-6 ranking meets next year will be in Europe, adding reason to Tejaswin’s US return plans. The primary factor is familiarity. Tejaswin spent five years at Kansas State University, making his mark as a student-athlete and a NCAA champion in high jump while training with Cliff Rovelto.
“Same coach, same environment,” he said. “It’s something that I’m used to, and I don’t want to change it before the Olympics.” Before his visa expired forcing him to return to India, the last leg of Tejaswin’s US stretch involved a corporate stint with Deloitte. He juggled the dual life of being an athlete and auditor, found the complex multi-tasking “therapeutic” and thrived in the chaos. “I could do 2.26m while also working full time,” he said.
This time, it may be a bit too one-dimensional: train and repeat. “It’s new, and I don't know if it will be good or bad,” Tejaswin said. “It could be detrimental, because I have 18 more hours to think about stuff which can be overkill. It can also be a boon, because I can focus more on aspects like recovery. This will be another new challenge for me. I’m curious about the outcome.”
He’s also curious about the “elusive” 2.30m mark, which continues to be his goal. “And I’m 1cm off, which really p****s me off. I’d rather be a 2.20 than be 2.29 and not make 2.30. But this year, that goal remains. I think I’m a little bit more mature physically and emotionally.”
The experience of training and competing in decathlon, the gruelling 10-event discipline that also includes high jump, will also help. Tejaswin is already starting to feel the gain in “holding the explosiveness” in jumps much deeper into competitions, courtesy his increased endurance from decathlon.
“A high jump competition usually lasts 2-3 hours. I’ve felt the difference in the ability to still jump high at the end of the second hour, just because I have that endurance from decathlon,” he said.
The biggest challenge in switching from decathlon to high jump is “getting the body back into high jump zone”, and aspects like cutting down on the muscle mass gained from decathlon. Even though he hasn’t done a lot of jumps this season, Tejaswin is confident it will all come back once he gets down to jumping in training (tentatively from January) and then in meets (February onwards).
“It’s like riding a bike. The more I do it, the more I can get better. And then make adjustments in a tense competitive environment. Those are things that come with competing more often.”
Tejaswin hopes to get down to competing in indoor meets by February before moving outdoor and “then be able to hold that peak till July at the Olympics”. As has often been the case with him, the high jumper-turned-decathlete-turned-high jumper finds himself in uncharted waters.
“Nothing’s been done before. Even I haven’t done this before. But that uncertainty excites me. Worst case I don’t make it (to the Olympics). But who thinks about the worst outcome? You’d rather think about the best outcome.”
That, in his mind, is Tejaswin being in Paris next year.
“Based on my realistic expectations and ability, I don’t see why not. Everything points to the fact that I should be there, and I’m 100% confident of making it to the Olympics. I have my eyes set on it since 2015. I missed out in 2016 (Rio) and Tokyo, so I really want to make it to this one,” he said.
“Right now, my biggest concern is to compete in those five meets and do well for the ranking. In the meanwhile, if I’m able to get to that 2.33m barrier, nothing will be better than that. Then I can just sit back and prepare for Paris.”