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Posted at: Oct 6, 2018, 12:13 AM; last updated: Oct 6, 2018, 12:13 AM (IST)

On the fast track

Karam Prakash

Six months ago, Sreeshankar Murali, a wiry teenager from Palakkad in Kerala who also happens to be a top long-jumper, suffered terrible pain in his stomach. His dream was to be in Gold Coast for the Commonwealth Games. Instead, he found himself in the ICU, undergoing surgery for an appendix rupture. Sreeshankar would have missed the Commonwealth Games anyway — the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) had not sent his credentials to the organisers for accreditation. Why? Well, the AFI didn’t expect him to meet the qualifying standard in the qualifying tournament in March!

Such is the life of an Indian athlete.

Sreeshankar, a very cheerful lad, didn’t mind the omission. “What if the appendix had ruptured in Gold Coast,” he asks. As it is surgery and three days in the ICU left him 6 kg lighter and feeling very weak.

Late in September, Sreeshankar roared back, breaking the national record at the National Open Athletics Championships in Bhubaneswar. He performed the best jump in Indian long-jump history, 8.20 metres. He’s only 19.

Indian athletics is witnessing the emergence of some really talented youngsters — and we’re not talking about the two brightest, Neeraj Chopra (20) and Hima Das (18), who are already performing strongly at the senior level.

Sreeshankar, Ajairaj Singh Rana, Tejaswin Shankar, Arshdeep Singh and Kamalpreet Kaur are among the top athletes who can, with good coaching and mentoring, compete with the best in the world — Sreeshankar’s effort of 8.20m was better than the silver-winning effort at the Asian Games (8.15m by China’s  Zhang Yaoguang).

Indian junior athletes have always been performing well and winning medals at the junior world level. It started with Seema Punia winning silver back in 2002 in the U-20 World Athletics Championship and the streak has been continued with Navjeet Kaur Dhillon winning a bronze in discus throw at the IAAF World Junior Championships in 2014 and Hima Das winning gold this year.

However, in the past, the performance of the juniors — in most cases — had not been close to the performance of their senior contemporaries. Then, the transition from junior to senior-level would often get stuck in plateaus. Some experts blamed it on too early specialisation and too early intensive training. But now things have taken a golden turn because most of the juniors are eclipsing the senior marks. This swing is a sign of a lot of talent coming into the mainstream. Hima Das and Neeraj Chopra won gold medals at the U-20 World Athletics Championships. Immediately after that, they surpassed the seniors and won medals at the senior level, too.

Apart from Chopra and Hima, there is a bunch of young blood — with hunger and passion to perform and deliver — ready to follow suit and take Indian athletics to a new level.

Here’s a look at some of our budding athletes:

Tejaswin Shankar | High jump

This lean and tall 19-year-old has raised India’s hope of a medal in high jump at the global level. In April this year, he set a new national record by scaling 2.29m to better his previous mark of 2.28m. In 2017, Shankar had leaped 2.28m and won the title at the Federation Cup athletics meet in Patiala. The talented Delhi jumper has been training in the USA  after he won a sports  scholarship there.

In the intensely competitive collegiate athletics championships in the US, Shankar won gold in June with an effort of 2.24m. Shankar is the third Indian to win an NCAA gold, after triple jumper Mohinder Gill and discus thrower Vikas Gowda.

Arshdeep Singh | 400m

This young Patiala lad has surprised everyone with his speed. Son of a farmer, Arshdeep Singh, 20, won silver at the recently concluded 58th Open Inter-State Athletics Championship by clocking 47.13 seconds. Arshdeep has ended a decade-long wait for a medal for Punjab in this event at the senior level. Arshdeep is currently pursuing a Masters of Physical Education (MP Ed) degree from Prof Gursewak Singh Government College of Physical Education, Patiala. “In Punjab, athletes are not usually fast enough to compete in sprint events,” says Arshdeep and adds: “If all goes according to plan, I will be able to break the national record soon!”

Sreeshankar Murali | Long jump

The wiry 19-year-old surprised everyone with a record-breaking jump of 8.20 m at the recent National Open Athletics Championship in Bhubaneswar. Sreeshankar bettered the earlier national record of 8.19 m, which Ankit Sharma set at Almaty in 2016. Sreeshankar, an engineering student, has athletics in his blood. He’s coached by his father, Murali, a former triple jumper, while mother Bijimol was an 800m runner. “I am happy with my jump as I had missed medals at the Asian Games and U-20 world Athletics Championship by a whisker,” Sreeshankar says. “I was terribly in need of an above 8m jump.” “I was successful in not letting myself be under any sort of pressure,” he says when asked about his record jump. “I had let myself free, which worked well for me.”

Kamalpreet Kaur | Discus throw

Kamalpreet Kaur, 22, took to discus throw in 2013. This year in August, she smashed the six-year-old meet record at the All-India Railways Athletics Championship in Lucknow. Kamalpreet threw to a distance of 61.04m to break the mark of 58.05m, set by Commonwealth Games gold medallist Krishna Poonia. Kamalpreet also won gold at the National Open Athletics Championship in Bhubaneswar last month “In the coming years, I would be able to out throw Krishna Poonia and Seema Punia,” says the young lady.

Avinash Sable | Steeplechase

Avinash Sable, the 24-year-old son of a farmer from Maharashtra, erased the 37-year-old record in men’s 3000m steeplechase by clocking 8m 29.80s at the National Open Athletics. The old record belonged to Gopal Saini, who timed 8:30.88 in Tokyo in 1981. Sable had missed out on the Asian Games after an ankle injury. What is amazing is that Sable had no intention of becoming an athlete when he joined the Army as an 18-year-old. Three years ago, he decided to try cross-country running, before moving to steeplechase. Two years into steeplechase, he owns the national record, a remarkable feat.

Ajairaj Singh Rana | Javelin throw

Following Neeraj Chopra, a young javelin thrower from Punjab, Ajairaj Singh Rana, is being touted as a future javelin star. Rana surprised everyone at the Asian Area qualification at the Thai-Japan-Bangkok Youth Center in July where, with a throw of 76.13m, he won gold and qualified for the upcoming Youth Olympics Games, scheduled to start in Argentina today. Rana is the only athlete from Punjab to qualify for the quadrennial event for the Youth Olympics. Born in Kiratpur Sahib in Ropar, Rana was introduced to the sport by his uncle, who himself has been a national champion in javelin throw. “The boy is talented and has improved a lot in the past two years. He is a medal contender at the Youth Olympics,” says Rana’s coach Bikramjit Singh.

Sport in safe hands

“It is a positive sign since it reflects that talent is being identified at the right time,” says Chief Coach Bahadur Singh. 

“These young kids have started breaking long-standing records. Indian athletics is in safe hands,” he says. “These young athletes have age on their side. Thus, India has strong chance of winning medals at international events. 

“These athletes are born for the spotlight. They will win medals in the coming Olympics,” he adds. That sounds very, very optimistic, but youngsters like Chopra, Hima, Sreeshankar and Shankar have given us the reason to be hopeful.

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