If this were a race, Murali Sreeshankar may have flung himself across the finish line. But he did not have that privilege. Standing on the long jump runway on Thursday, 4 August, he had to hold his nerve and come up with an effort that would get him the Commonwealth Games medal he yearned for. He had to make sure everything fell in place for that one big, elusive jump.
He had done well to shake off the bogey of last year’s Olympic campaign with seventh-place finishes both in the World Athletics Indoor Championships in Beograd in March and the World Athletics Championships 2022 in Oregon last month. He created better memories for himself, leaving others to linger in Tokyo 2020 and its aftermath.
And now, in the Alexander Stadium, he was being spoken of as the favourite for Gold, given that he is currently the highest ranked of all long jumpers in the Commonwealth. And World Athletics ranking did not include the national record jump of 8.36 m in Thiruvananthapuram in April in the five performances that contribute to his being ranked World No. 7.
He gained confidence with each competition. Yet, as if the pressure of the final were not enough, the talk of gold being assured since he had produced the season’s leading jump among the competitors only served as a distraction. But he seemed to be aware that while he could draw confidence from earlier performances, he could not let such chatter induce complacency.
He knew he was among the best in the competition. But he did not find the rhythm he was looking for, jumping from well behind the take-off board to be trailing in sixth place at the halfway stage. Worse, after what seemed to be his best effort of the evening, his fourth attempt came up as a no-mark for a 1 cm transgression.
For some time now, he has been not satisfied with his running and that could have been playing on his mind, too. He had nowhere else to find what he was looking for but within himself even as time and the number of opportunities were running out on him. The growing chill saw even the top jumpers not being able to produce the big jumps after the top eight had been identified.
Sreeshankar was left seeking an elevated performance to justify the pre-event favouritism and, at once, shut the door on doubts queueing up to clutter his mind. Then again, Thursday was not so much about pressure as it was about the conquest of nerve. It makes for fascinating study, especially in the world of competitive sport, doesn’t it?
And across his last three jumps, Sreeshankar provided enough practical evidence for those wanting to avoid reading volumes of a treatise on controlling the butterflies in the stomach. It was at this stage that he embraced a composure and a deliberation that would help him be in the contest as a medal winner.
He had two jumps to turn things around. The glory-or-bust jump could wait till the last attempt. To erase all those thoughts and set off on a sprint to the take-off board in the quest for a big jump called for that rare ability to overcome nerves. And Sreeshankar summoned that to the fore at the most important time.
He had to ensure that he was not going to be in short supply of self-belief despite lying outside the medal bracket. He may have visualised every little bit of the sequence that combines to make the long jump, but he still had to execute them the best he could. And he rocked back at the start of his run-up and set off with belief in his heart, but while holding his nerve.
Taking off from 4 cm behind the line, he leapt to 8.08 m, equaling the longest distance anyone had jumped on Thursday evening. It was also the longest any Indian had jumped in the Commonwealth Games, improving his own mark of 8.05 m from the qualification round.
He knew he had to go past the 7.94 m mark, if not 8.09 m, on his last try to claim gold from under Bahamas' LaQuan Nairn. That was not to happen as his problems with the run-up cropped up again, leading to a no-mark on that attempt. He had to settle for silver, the best medal claimed by an Indian in men's long jump ahead of Suresh Babu's bronze in 1970.
At long last, he was able to place a medal of great significance around his father S Muralidaran's neck. At long last, he was able to come up with a jump over 8.00 m when it mattered the most. And he justified the Athletics Federation of India and the Sports Authority of India's plan to compete in Europe and train in California ahead of the World Championships.
Many years later, when he watches videos of his Commonwealth Games competition, Sreeshankar would recall the day he fought till the end. He will likely remember the atmosphere in the Alexander Stadium with his friend Tejaswin Shankar and other Indian athletes and coaches rooting for him, the chill of the night, and above all, his conquest of the nerve.