Written by Andrew Amsan
Updated: July 17, 2022 1:17:43 pm
Murali Sreeshankar of India, competes during the men's long jump final at the World Athletics Championships. (AP)
Long jumper Murali Sreeshankar would be a tad upset about not being able to produce a jump anywhere close to his personal best of 8.36m that would have certainly sealed him a podium spot at the Oregon World Championships. In the high drama long jump final, China’s Jianan Wang, who was sitting in the fifth spot till the penultimate round, snatched the gold away from Tokyo champion Miltiádis Tentóglou with an 8.36m leap in his final attempt.
Sreeshankar, the only Indian male jumper to reach the finals at Worlds, finished seventh with a best attempt of 7.96m. In his fourth and sixth attempts, he measured 7.89 and 7.83m failing to breach the 8m mark as he did during the qualification round. The 23-year-old can take heart from the fact that no Indian male jumper has come this far and certainly nowhere close in their maiden World championships appearance.
A top-eight finish at Worlds proves that Sreeshankar belongs at the elite level and will set the tone for the upcoming Commonwealth Games. His Worlds campaign should also erase the bitter memories that have been haunting him since Tokyo.
When Sreeshankar returned from a disappointing outing at the Tokyo Olympics last August he contemplated quitting the sport and focussing on his studies. The criticism, his father and coach Murali says, got to the then 22-year-old. In his debut Games, he could only manage a best jump of 7.69m and finished 24th in the heats.
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“He came back and was reading all the papers, including all the not-so-nice things written about him,” says father Murali in a lighter vein. But it took a lot of encouragement from family and friends to pull out Sreeshankar from the mental slump he had fallen post-Tokyo.
And if the Tokyo disappointment wasn’t enough, things got a little tougher when the Athletics Federation of India decided to remove Murali as Sreeshankar’s coach. “We are not happy with his coaching programme, first action is already being taken as we have changed his coach,” AFI president Adille Sumariwalla had bluntly put it.
But Sreeshankar and his father were adamant. They continued their training in Pallakad, Kerala after a month-long rehab in the JSW facilities in Bellary. AFI’s removal of Murali as an official coach meant that he could no longer avail paid leave from Indian Railways, his employer, to train Sreeshankar.
“I always felt hurt when I was told that I don’t know anything. I studied in a sports college, studied under several coaches, and was in the national camp for over 10 years. I have competed in the domestic circuit for many years. I can see changes much faster,” says Murali a former triple jumper.
It was a tough period for the duo until the Federation Cup in April where they silenced their critics with a new national record of 8.36m. Murali not only felt vindicated but regained a spot in the good books of the federation who now seem to have conceded its best the duo train together.
“My father understands me and my body better than me. I have always had complete faith in him and his decisions for me,” says Sreeshankar who started training informally under his father when was just 10. He wasn’t allowed to follow in his father’s footsteps and take up triple jump as Murali felt it was an injury-prone sport.
Training under Murali meant Sreeshankar would spend most of his teenage years sharing rooms with his father as they trotted along the country competing. The wiry-framed athlete insists that he’s never felt the need for some “personal space” as he considers his father as one of his best friends.
“We discuss everything. We share everything related to life, sports, and politics. I tell him about my college. It’s not like we talk about sports 24X7,” Sreeshankar says.
Murali generally keeps his cool with Sreeshankar and doesn’t believe in a harsh postmortem of events where things have not gone their way. “He never scolds or speaks to me harshly if I perform poorly. He just asks me to forget it and focus on the next competition,” says Sreeshankar.
But that does not mean it’s always calm and cool in the Murali camp. The scolding and “encouraging” words in Malayalam are reserved for training alone. “During training, he shouts if I don’t do something properly. He gets really furious if you touch the phone during practice. He sometimes has some “encouraging words” for me in Malayalam as well which you can’t even imagine. I will tell you after the interview is over (laughs).,” says Sreeshankar.
Murali quickly jumps in to clarify that Sreeeshankar leaves little room for him to get upset. “He is very polite, obedient and wise. He doesn’t do anything wrong. No shortcut or easy method to let down anybody,” he says.
The only mischief Sreeshankar admitted to being part of was “borrowing cycles without asking” for short trips around his school. “My school was in Kanjkode and we used to cycle to Malapuzha (a tourist spot). I used to borrow cycles without asking but always returned it,” he says.
Despite Sreeshankar’s success on the athletics circuit, his focus on studies has never waivered. But he did have to make some huge sacrifices on the education front to ensure sports doesn’t get sidelined.
After graduating from school, Sreeshankar applied for medical and engineering entrance exams. “I didn’t go for any coaching or tuition and to be honest I wasn’t really serious about the exams,” says Sreeshankar. Serious or not, he cracked both entrances. At the NEET exams, he stood second in his state on sports quota and cleared engineering on pure merit. His NEET scores would have earned him a medical seat in any premier college in Kerala. But Sreeshankar had other plans and chose to take up a BSc Maths instead.
“I know if I had taken up a medical seat, I would have been sorted for life. My future would have been secure. But I didn’t, because athletics comes first for me. I would have had to shift all my attention to academics and that’s not what I can afford. It’s not always about the money,” says Sreeshankar.
Giving up on alcohol
It’s not only Sreeshankar but his father too who had to take certain life-changing calls to focus better on sports. “He was a chronic drinker,” says Sreeshankar. But it has been almost a decade since Murali has given up on alcohol.
“Every evening I used to get calls asking, ‘Enda Parivadi (What’s the program today?)’. After a point, I decided that I need to quit for my children. As soon as the alcohol went away the friends also went away,” says Murali. “It was a huge shocker for his friends,” adds Sreeshankar.
Sreeshankar feels their partnership has yielded results so far because of no compromise in two areas, honesty and hard work. Murali has also tailor-made the training routine to focus on his son’s strength which is speed and technique.
“It is not about being bulky or muscular. It is about building strength and that is how my training program is designed. In long jump you just need the muscles to carry your body weight, you don’t need the muscles to carry heavy loads,” explains Murali.
With things falling in place nicely for the duo, they would hope they get a little breather until the next set of doubters arises.
“People will continue to question us. Even if he jumps 8.50 they will ask why can’t he jump 8.60,” says Murali.
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