Sreeshankar’s giant leap: Why the long jumper’s qualification for World Championship final is a big breakthrough in Indian athletics

After dismal performances at the 2019 Doha World Championships and Tokyo Olympics, where he failed to reach the finals, the inevitable question with regards to long jumper Murali Sreeshankar ahead of the ongoing Worlds was: Will he be able to handle the big-competition pressure?

The 23-year-old put those doubts to rest on Friday, with a best attempt of 8m that earned him a spot in the finals, making him the first male long jumper in the country to do so. His compatriots Jeswin Aldrin and Anees Yahiya won’t be giving him company in Oregon further as they failed to make the cut for the finals. No matter what transpires from here on, Sreeshankar’s achievement is nothing short of a breakthrough in Indian athletics.

“It is a huge thing for long jump in the country. I stopped at the 8.19m range but always dreamt that some other Indian would take the mantle forward. At one point crossing the 8m barriers was considered huge, now we have three jumpers who can do that. When I was competing I couldn’t imagine a long jumper from our country reaching the Worlds finals,” says Ankit Sharma, who was the national record holder until Sreeshankar first rewrote it in 2018.

Sharma was also all praise for the youngster’s technique and work commitment. He had no qualms in comparing Sreeshankar’s attitude and work ethic with that of India’s greatest track and field athlete, Neeraj Chopra.

“He is blessed with great genes thanks to his athlete parents. His strength is his explosiveness. He can do 8m at whatever angle he lifts off from. His approach has also improved a lot in recent times. Just like Neeraj, he is also very dedicated and humble. He has no distractions and works really hard like Neeraj,” adds Sharma.

The run-up to the Tokyo Olympics was far from ideal for Sreeshankar and his father-coach Murali. The Athletics Federation of India made him undergo a fitness trial where he fared poorly. Coach Murali had to give it writing that his son would touch the 8m mark in Tokyo. Sreeshankar was already flustered even before his campaign began and he eventually managed a best jump of 7.69m, which wasn’t enough for a spot in the finals.

But this season, Sreeshankar showed a lot more maturity and consistency as he breached the 8m-mark on numerous occasions. At the interstate meet, the final selection and fitness trials for CWG, he breached the 8m-mark in the heats itself and returned to bag the gold with a decent 8.21m leap.

The polite yet chirpy athlete also had long chat with Robert Bobby George, who has had a major role in shaping Sreeshankar’s technique, before heading to Oregon. Bobby, who coached Anju to India’s lone athletics Worlds medal, summed up the whole conversation in one line: “I asked him to take the qualification round very seriously.”

Immense potential

When Bobby first saw Sreeshakar jump back in 2017 he saw the immense potential in the youngster but he wanted to ask the Kerala athlete to change his technique. Bobby was certain that Sreeshankar, whose best jumps were in the 7.60-7.70m, had to ditch his outdated hang technique and adopt the hitch kick (athletes do a cyclic motion with their legs while airborne) to breach the 8m mark. Murali was initially reluctant to heed to Robert’s advice.

“I told his father and he seemed very reluctant. He was worried Sree’s performance would go down further,” Robert recalls. But Bobby wasn’t going to give up so easily.

“I spoke to Sree’s mother and explained the process. I also spoke to his sister and told her to convince her brother. Within four months he made the switch and next year breached the 8m mark. I am happy that I had an instrumental role to play in Sreeshankar’s career,” Robert says.

Robert believes that reaching the finals of a major tournament like the Worlds will boost Sreehsankar’s confidence and will help him in the upcoming major tournaments. “He is very young and still has 6-7 years left in him,” he says. Robert, the most technically sound horizontal jumps coach in the country, has more tips in store for the youngster as he makes that journey.

“His last few steps before the jump needs some correction,” he says. “He is going for longer strides instead of faster strides which I think will help him gain more distance.”

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