Long jumper M Sreesankhar cleared 8.26 metres at the Federation Cup last week to erase the national record and secure a spot at the Tokyo Olympic Games. For the youngster, it was just reward for his passion and love for sports and athletics, honed by calculated and methodical guidance from his parents.
It was no wonder that Sreesankhar, a 21-year-old from Palakkad, took to athletics from a very young age. His father Murali and mother K S Bijimol, who won silver in 800m at the 1992 Asian Junior Athletics Championships, both represented India and won laurels in various international meets. Their influence and the fact that most of his family, including cousins, were all involved in various sports meant Sreeshankar's initiation into track and field was no surprise.
"From a very young age, I was quite interested in sports. I was particularly into track and field because my parents were international athletes. Almost all my family members were related to sports one way or the other. My cousins were tennis players, basketball players. So, this was what was around me from my childhood. I was quite into this field, naturally," Sreeshankar told Olympic Channel.
Though he found his calling in long jump, Sreeshankar was initially a sprinter and one who had considerable success in the junior circuits as well.
"I would go to the nearby grounds along with my father and would run and play all the time. As a young kid, I started as a sprinter. I had success as a sprinter too, winning gold medals in the district and state-level meets. I didn't train seriously during that time though. It was more like having fun for me," he said.
"I gradually shifted to long jump as I grew up. (That was because) my father realised the potential in me and felt that I have good jumping ability. So, I gradually shifted from sprinting to long jump. I started serious training in long jump from my 10th standard."
The initiation into long jump was gradual.
"And I did not start training heavily back then. My father initiated me slowly into long jumping. He was building me up meticulously in a proper way, considering all fundamentals required to become a proper long jumper. My dad himself was a long jumper and had trained under foreign coaches and knew how to develop an athlete properly," said Sreeshankar.
And the result of that patient approach was an 8.26m jump that has propelled him straight into the Olympics and made the country sit up and take note of a precocious talent.
"What he focused on me was to build my fundamentals properly. Year by year, I was making sure that I had progress in my jumps by around 20-25 cms. I kept on adding to my jumps and I got the big jump now," revealed a confident Sreeshankar.
However, this was not the first time Sreeshankar had given us a glimpse of his capabilities. He broke the long jump national record for the first time in September, 2018, at the National Open Athletics Championships in Bhubaneswar that came on the back of a disappointing Asian Games where he finished sixth after run-up issues.
All of 19 years old at the time, Sreeshankar's distance of 8.20m was the world leading jump of the season among under-20 athletes.
"There are a lot of technical corrections I need to make and improvise. If I'm able to get those right, I'm sure I'll be able to jump around 8.40m by the end of the season. Hopefully, I can do that in the Olympic Games and win that elusive medal for our country," he said.
Apart from the technical support from his parents, their mental support has been key in keeping the flame raging high on Sreeshankar's Olympic dream.
"They never said anything negative to me regarding my sporting career. Both of them were international athletes, they knew how to develop one and what should be my mindset and how my daily life should be," he said.
"My mother used to prescribe a diet for me. I'm also working with a dietician and he communicates the diet to my mother and she makes sure I stick to the diet. My father knew how tiresome and what sort of dedication is required to excel at a higher level. Both are very influential in my career."
Sreeshankar says he was fortunate to have parents with sports background.
"That's what many of our athletes lack. If they're coming from a non-sporting background, their parents or relatives may not understand the exact situation. My case was very different because of my family and parents," he added.