Kathakali has been a journalist for a decade and a half, working previously with The Telegraph and Times of India. An MA in political science and a Chevening Fellow, she writes on various themes--the business of sports, pop culture, startups, innovation--and co-produces the video series, From the Field. She is also part of the desk, editing, rewriting and putting the print edition to bed. Kathakali is a sports nut and collects autographs as a hobby. She enjoys travelling and music, and you'll often find her humming completely out of tune.
Bronze medallist India's Tejaswin Shankar celebrates during the medal ceremony for the men's high jump athletics event at the Alexander Stadium, in Birmingham on day six of the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, central England; Image: Ben Stansall / AFP
Before he took on the big guns in the Commonwealth Games (CWG), high jumper Tejaswin Shankar fought an equally tense battle in the month leading up to it—against the Athletics Federation of India (AFI), challenging in court his omission from the CWG squad. Shankar had earlier been left out of the contingent as he achieved qualification at a meet in the US, where he studies and trains, and failed to participate in the AFI-mandated national championships in Chennai.
Even as the Delhi high court cleared his participation, the organisers refused to include him past the deadline, and the imbroglio was resolved following a meeting with the chef de mission just five days prior to the Games. Shankar says he could have let it go and waited for the next CWG four years later, but he wanted to push for what’s rightfully his. And it all came together in the end as he ended up with the bronze in high jump, becoming the first Indian to win a CWG medal in the sport. In a chat with Forbes India, the 24-year-old, who now works with Deloitte in the US, breaks down his processes, and how he manages to wear multiple hats. Edited excerpts:
You were playing cricket when in school, and looking to get into fast bowling. How did you shift to athletics?
Athletics isn’t something that I wanted to do to begin with. Probably fate drifted me towards the sport. When I was playing cricket, one of my school coaches who had just joined that year came and wanted me to try athletics. The way he convinced me was he said ‘you are tall and fit’, so he probably saw something in me. But then he said, “In order to get better in cricket you have to be physically ready to make that jump from under-14 to state level, where as an under-16, you have to compete with under-20 guys.” So, I just ventured into athletics one day and over the course of time I didn’t really have the ambitions of becoming an athlete. I started because it was fun, and then I started to do well. By the time I got into my third year, I was able to break the national record. That was a shock to me and got me to start taking it a bit more seriously than a pastime.
Was there a particular event that told you that you were good enough to take it up in the long term?
This was in 2016 in the Open national championships where I jumped 2.22m. My personal best before that was 2.15-2.17m. So, that was a big 5-6 cm jump, which is pretty significant in high jump. In November that year I jumped 2.26 m where I broke the national record. Around that time I began to have thoughts that I am done with education and I need to focus on sport full-time. But my mom had other plans [laughs].
What did you mother do?
Once I had that thought, I stormed into my house and said, ‘Okay mom, aaj se kitabey bandh, I am not giving my 12th ka exam (I am giving up studies, I won’t take my Class 12 exam).’ She panicked and spoke to my school principal, and they started to brainwash me into giving the exam and told me that I wasn’t being far-sighted. I continued to tell them that nothing doing, I want to do sports for eight hours and nothing else. Somehow, and even today I don’t know how, I cleared my board exam, studying for the last two months. And, looking back, that’s where the gateway of possibilities opened up for me. Had I not taken that exam, I wouldn’t have come this far in my life. Because of my results I later managed to join the University of Kansas and train with the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association).
Back then, the sporting infrastructure for Olympic sports hadn’t developed as much. Did you face challenges on that front?
Back then, I didn’t even know what you needed to jump high. I would just go to national meets and jump. At the national meet, most of the guys were using the Fosbury Flop (backward jump), but I was still ding scissor flop, because at that time, in our school, we didn’t have a high jump pit. We’d just put two crossbars over the long jump pit and jump. As I started doing well, our school bought a high jump mat for me. That was the first big push towards being serious about the sport. But infrastructure-wise, I didn’t think much of it because, while we had everything in the international camps, I never had the opportunity to go there. I had a parallel life and stay home and study. It was in 2017 that I got in touch with JSW Sports and got to use their facility in Bangalore. And that’s where I developed a friendship with [javelin-thrower and Olympic gold-medallist] Neeraj Chopra.
Who were you role models and mentors in the early years and what are some of the key lessons that you’ve learnt from them?
Not much in my early years, because then I was just doing whatever I could. But, later on, when wisdom caught up with me, one of the lessons that I learnt was that don’t trust yourself in your teenage years. Don’t just rebel and do what you think is right because there’s always someone older who knows what’s right for you. To give you a little context, right after I gave my board exams, in May or June that year, I met Garry Calvert in Bangalore, who was then Neeraj’s coach, who told me about the NCAA system, and that they look at education. He told me to go there and become a student athlete. He told me the coaches I could contact, and when I did that they asked for my grades in school. When I showed them, they told me those work. So, had I not cleared my exam, maybe I wouldn’t have the opportunity to come to the US and train with Cliff Rovelto, one of the best coaches in the world, at nobody’s cost, get two bachelor’s degrees, get a master’s degree.
At 19, you moved to college at Kansas. At that age, to move to a foreign country to do sports and also academics must have pushed you out of your comfort zone. How did this period shape you?
I am usually quite adaptive to whatever situation I am put in. But the biggest takeaway for me after coming here was that it’s not about the end goal. The journey never stops. My initial goal was to jump 2.26 m, and then I jumped it. So, now what? I feel I’ve often had such goals in my life, and when I achieve those I am completely blank for a few days. In those instances, with good mentorship, I’ve learnt that it’s a process and it’s a continuous journey. Every time you associate an end number to it, you don’t have anything to look forward to, and you have to sit down to reassess. Through these years, I’ve learnt to fall in love with the process, the routine of waking up and doing what you do, irrespective of what’s coming up. After coming year, I’ve widened my horizons. I wasn’t sitting in my house, my mom wasn’t cooking for me, some days I was hungry trying to make Maggi. But those are the days that teach you more than the ones where you are sitting in your home.
On such days, did you encounter any moments of self-doubt?
A lot of the times I didn’t have any self-doubt because I was ignorant most of the times. In my first year in college, I won the NCAA title, the biggest thing to win within the system. Fast forward to June, after the competition, when the coach calls me and I’m thinking he will congratulate me. And he looks at me and said, ‘If you think you are successful, you are wrong.’ I asked him why, and he said, ‘Success is not related to what you do, but it’s more of a habit that should transcend every boundary. If you think you are successful in sport, you should apply the same principles to your studies, and everything else.’ That was a big learning moment for me and it’s a statement I still live by.
Another time you had to go beyond your comfort zone was when you had to take up a legal battle against the AFI over your Commonwealth Games participation. It was always a tough thing to do, so what were the thoughts in your mind?
The uncertainty of what’s next—am I going or not—was difficult to deal with during this period. But one thing I knew was that what I was doing was right. So, I just wanted to stick by it and see what the end-result would be. The easy answer would have been that there’s another Commonwealth Games in four years, so I might as well not do anything now. But I thought I had a shot at the Games, and just because of some misunderstanding I shouldn’t give up on that opportunity. Now, of course, it’s easier said than done. But that one month was probably the hardest for me—I wasn’t eating or sleeping properly because I didn’t have the motivation to do anything. I had just put my mind to one goal rather than the process, and I was drifting away from the process. Right after the Games, I got back to the right headspace, and a lot of it had to do with the fact that I won the medal. I cherished the medal for a day or two, and then I put it away and went back to my routine. If I wanted my success to be sustainable I had to go back to the process, else I would be a one-medal guy.
This was a fight that ended well for you. But an international athlete often faces tougher situations that don’t go your way. How does one train the mind to turn around from setbacks?
At that level, when you are competing in global championships, everyone is similar. It just depends on who is more consistent mentally and able to handle pressure better. When the situation doesn’t go my way, every time I feel overwhelmed, I just go back to the drawing board. I was recently talking to my coach about juggling many things—like doing a job, trying the decathlon, moving away from high jump. It’s overwhelming because there are so many moving parts, and I was feeling the pressure. And he told me, ‘There’s only one way to eat—one piece at a time.’ It’s very important to see what is it that you have to do today, and then do it to the best of your abilities, before moving on to the next piece.
Your identity is high jump, why do you want to move to decathlon?
While growing up, I never had a chance to sit down and think why I was doing what I was doing. Over time, when I would sit down with my own thoughts and would dissect it, I realised that to win a medal at a particular championship wasn’t my goal—it was my coach’s goal and my family’s goal. That’s a short-lived joy for me because that doesn’t motivate me to wake up at 5 am before going to work at 8 am, or going to the track and train after work. For me, it’s not about the medal, it will come and go. Someday, I could do everything right and somebody else could pip me out of medal contention—that’s what I did to Donal Thomas of the Bahamas, who came fourth in the Commonwealth Games, he missed the medal by barely a centimetre. For me the goal was to get happiness, and learn something new. Training became monotonous for me, after a point, when I was training for high jump. So, in order to spice things up a bit, my coach added multiple events, like long jump, hurdles, which are complementary to the high jump in their technique. As we started doing those, I realised I was starting to get better in each of those disciplines. I saw I was good at seven events, and there were only three events—discus, pole vault and javelin—that I needed to get better to put together a decathlon run. So I did a decathlon last year in April and I ended 50-odd points away from the national record. That’s when I realised it gives me the chaos that I like. I was to qualify for decathlon in the Asian Games and, hopefully, win a medal there.
You work with Deloitte, you train for 10 events, you have a thriving sports career. How do you get so much done?
It’s just the chaos, I just love the chaos. I need 10 things to go on in my life at the same time. Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to focus on just one thing. In my case, as a kid, I went to school, play sports, coming from a South Indian family had to learn the table, drawing, painting, all those things, and then you still have a social life. You start managing everything when you are 5 or 6. Going forward, why would you just want to do one thing, and sit around and overthink? I felt my strength since a kid was doing many things, so let me try that, Worst case scenario, I’ll probably suck at all 10, and I’ll have to drop something. That’s not too tough.
What are some of the key lessons that being an international athlete has taught you?
Own your narrative. I always tried to fit into someone else’s shoes. Like, the thought was if you want to be successful, you had to win the nationals by 15, and do some things by 20 and 30. That’s not the case. Everyone is successful in their own way, you just have to find your narrative, and find your strength, like mine was doing 10 things at one time.