CHENNAI: M Sreeshankar has his hands up in anticipation. He’s at the top of the runway, beginning his fifth jump on a humid Sunday evening in Chennai. Whenever he feels confident of a good jump, he raises his hands. Seconds later, he’s travelling through the air. It’s a textbook landing. One of the officials screams ‘8.23 metres’ — the meet record that helped him finish on the top of the podium. The small but very appreciative crowd that’s gathered near the long jump pit goes wild. They have got what they came to see; the 23-year-old jumping beyond the 8.20m territory.
It’s something the athlete from Kerala has been doing on a consistent basis. In 2022 alone, he has registered three jumps over the territory. To show how significant this mark is, three of the best 11 jumps in 2022 are his (8.36m, 8.31m, 8.23m). Considering the Worlds begins in just over a month, that’s a good place to be in.
Ninety minutes later, the long jumper is jogging up and down a small corridor in the bowels of the stadium. It’s a familiar problem that athletes face. He is waiting to give his urine test at doping control but, sometimes, it’s not that easy. After the high of competition, it may take time for the body. “I usually drink four bottles of water (500ml), I’m down to my fourth. This routine of jogging also helps. Nothing so far today (Saturday),” he laughs. “Once in Patiala (the meet that saw him qualify for Tokyo), I waited for four hours.”
At the upcoming World Championships in Eugene, in the last week of July, Sreeshankar, along with Neeraj Chopra, will be the principal athletes tasked with ending a 19-year-wait for an athletics medal at the Worlds (Anju Bobby George in 2003). Sreeshankar, who roomed with Chopra in Tokyo, believes it’s possible. “I’m aiming for a medal at Eugene,” he says. His voice is full of confidence. He is of the opinion that a jump in the region of 8.35m will guarantee him one. “8.35m (what’s the mark you need to achieve).
We have a great Cuban guy (Juan Miguel Echevarria). There is one decathlon guy (Simon Ehammer), who jumped 8.45m (world leader) out of nowhere. He’s a major threat. There is (Miltiadis) Tentoglou (Olympic champion).
While Sreeshankar has jumped beyond 8.35m this year, the one thing that can be held against him — but not an accusation considering he’s still young and learning — is his performances in big events. In three blue-riband meets (2019 Worlds, 2021 Olympics and 2022 Indoor Worlds), his best was 7.92m in Belgrade at the latter. In the two outdoor events, he hasn’t managed to go beyond the first round. He’s aware of this. “At the Olympics, I wasn’t physically fit (he had lost some muscle mass owing to Covid). Now, everything is smooth.”
He has also worked hard on the mental side of the sport. The end result? He doesn’t panic and the anxiety he faced during competitions has almost evaporated because ‘he knows I can connect at least one jump’. “I don’t feel I’m jumping against Tentoglou or (Thobias, Swedish jumper) Montler. I can beat them.
“Earlier there would be situations when I would panic a lot. I would get anxious. Now, I know I will get it. If not in the fifth jump, then in the sixth jump.”
He also cites Tentoglou’s career as proof that there is always a process, a step-by-step improvement before medaling at the world stage. “Not yet (if he’s at Tentaglou and Echevarria’s level). They are at a different level but I’m slowly getting there. It will take time. The same happened with Tentaglou. He didn’t qualify for the Worlds in 2017 (Outdoors) in 2018 (Outdoors). In 2019, he reached the final. In 2021, he won gold at the Olympics. You don’t go to the Worlds and win suddenly… it’s possible but not realistic.”
The 23-year-old from Palakkad, in a similar vein, has been to multiple Worlds. If he can put into practice what he has learned over the last eight months, he could seriously challenge for a medal at Eugene.