With mum and dad, Murali Sreeshankar ready for leap of faith
Every morning, Murali Sreeshankar wakes up to a vision of the Olympics: The five rings are boldly etched on the mirror in his room. The 22-year-old long jumper, who will make his Olympic debut in Tokyo, can’t escape it. There are reminders everywhere in his home in Palakkad, Kerala: the rings as well as the Olympic torch logos are on the living room table, the main entrance, on the balcony walls, on others door in the house and on the iron grills of the windows.
“It has been this way even before I was born. This house was built in 1998 and I was born the next year. My parents designed it this way,” he said, over a video call.
Athletics runs in the blood. Sreeshankar’s father S. Murali is a former triple jumper and silver medallist at the South Asian Games. His mother KS Bijimol was a silver medallist in 800m at the 1992 Asian Junior Championships. But neither could make it to the Olympics; their son is helping realise a long-cherised dream.
Growing up in such an athletics-mad household meant illustrious names like PT Usha and Shiny Wilson are regular visitors and staying up till midnight to see Usain Bolt beat Yohan Blake in a “thriller” at the 2012 London Olympics 100m event the norm. Sreeshankar’s dad is also his chief coach. Over the course of the past one year, the father-son duo has maintained a rigorous routine that saw him qualify for the Tokyo Olympics with 8.26m jump at the Federation Cup in Patiala in March.
Setting the bar
The qualification mark for the Olympics was 8.22m. It meant Sreeshankar had to break his own national record of 8.20m (set at the 2018 National Open Athletics Championship) to earn a ticket to Tokyo. He crossed 8m in all his jumps in Patiala, but the qualification mark was breached in his fifth attempt.
Theoretically, an 8.26m jump would have fetched Sreeshankar a fourth-place finish at the 2016 Rio Olympics. It makes him dream big.
“A 7.95m-8m jump will be enough to qualify for the final round in Tokyo. Anything above 8.35m will fetch a medal. That’s what I am targeting,” Sreeshankar said.
His perceived podium mark is a short distance – 9cm to be precise – from Sreeshankar’s current best, but he knows the journey to attain it will be long. With no competition since qualifying in March due to the pandemic, the tall athlete said he would be up against athletes who have been “travelling and competing as if nothing has happened.”
The other test
So, Sreeshankar and his father have embarked on a tough schedule at the Medical College ground in his hometown, four days a week over the past few months. The evenings are reserved to keep his Olympic dream alive while the mornings are for something else.
“I have my final year B.Sc exams in Mathematics (before the Olympics). After that, saying bye-bye to maths,” said the student of Victoria College. “But frankly studies have taken a back seat and its only and only Olympics. It comes once in four years, and this time in five years!”
Sreeshankar’s sessions start at 4:30pm and often stretch till 9pm.
“Technique, strength and speed are the three key factors in long jump. Right now, I am in a bit of loading phase in the sense that training part is a bit heavy. We will be keeping it light only towards the main event. In spite of that I have been getting good jumps. It’s a positive sign,” Sreeshankar said.
That he finds his best mark among the top 10 jumps this year has boosted Sreeshankar’s confidence. “Personally, it’s a ray of hope. In 2019, where I competed at the World Championships I saw my name among the some of the very last athletes (with a best jump of 7.62m he could not qualify for the finals). Now that I among the top few, I am sure good things will happen,” he said.
“We are not yet in our full approach phase in my jumps during training. My run approach is 19 strides. I am more in a half approach stage. I will gradually progress towards the main competitive phase only.”
For any long jumper getting the strides right is the first and most important part in a series of steps. It sets the momentum, rhythm and speed before the launch. The takeoff, for which massive lower body strength is required, is the second part. The jump or flight almost solely depends on the pace that the jumper has achieved during his sprint.
Like all good long jumpers, Sreeshanker too is a good sprinter. He has been a state champion in 50m and 100m at age-group levels before switching to long jump. Sreeshankar is confident that with the Tokyo Olympics athletics venue using high-quality Mondo tracks (a type of synthetic track surface) speed will not be an issue.
“The track in Patiala where I got the qualification mark was slow. Also there was headwind as the venue was open. In Tokyo, the field events will be inside a stadium so wind won’t be an issue. Also, the Mondo tracks are the fastest. Anyway, my dad will be by my side. We will improvise the approach accordingly.”
The reference to his dad comes up a number of times over the course of the conversation. “He has told me anything above my personal best at the Olympics will be good. In 2019, I trained under Volker Herrmann (high performance director with Athletics Federation of India) but it did not suit me. So, I now train under my dad,” he said.
His dad takes care of his training while his mom, in consultation with a nutritionist, supervises his diet. It’s the perfect Olympic family.