India is a large country with a long and storied history of accomplishment and an equally long and unequivocally embarrassing lack of athletic success on the international stage. Literally thousands of words and column-inches have been dedicated to the issue, but change may finally be in the air in New Delhi, and a crop of young athletes headlined by Kansas State’s own Tejaswin Shankar are about to bring that change.
Like millions of other Indians, Shankar grew up playing cricket and idolizing cricket players. But by chance, a PE teacher at his school saw natural bounce in Shankar’s step and encouraged him to try high jump instead. The move worked, and by the ripe old age of 16, Shankar was competing—and setting records—in international competition. He took gold in the Commonwealth Junior Games in 2015, setting a new meet record in the process. He also took silver at the South Asian Games in 2016, but an injury kept him from competing at the World Junior Championships the same year.
Later that year, Shankar broke a long-standing Indian national record when he hit 2.25m at the Junior Nationals there, and attracted the sort of attention that brought him to Kansas State. Shankar had never heard of the NCAA, but he trained with Jaime Nieto who was once coached by a guy named Cliff Rovelto. One thing led to another, and before he knew it, Rovelto was on the phone offering him a scholarship to Kansas State.
This spring, in addition to being the first Indian athlete to earn a full ride to an American college program in decades, Shankar also became the first to make the podium when he was third at the Big 12 Indoor Championships in Ames. He then returned to India and hit 2.28m in competition to qualify for the Commonwealth Games.
At this year’s CWGs, he hit 2.21m to qualify for the finals. Only three of the other competitors have hit 2.28m or better in competition this year, so Shankar’s chances of medaling are good.
To say that he carries the hopes and aspirations of a billion people is probably a bit too much at this stage. But in a country where track and field is hugely popular but homegrown heroes are few and far between, Shankar may well turn out to be a super star in a sport—specifically high jump—that is badly in need of a boost, especially if he goes home with a medal.
Shankar will be jumping in the high jump finals bright and early at 5:00 AM (CDT) on April 11. He won’t lack for supporters, not with a whole country behind him, but also a small army of purple faithful cheering him on.
The 2018 Commonwealth Games, also called the XXI Commonwealth Games, are currently in progress at the Gold Coast in Australia. The Games conclude on April 15, 2018.