At first glance, Cliff Rovelto’s comment would seem to border on the absurd.
Rovelto, Kansas State’s virtuoso track and field coach since 1992, has instructed no fewer than seven NCAA Outdoor high jump champions during the past 21 years, starting with Greensburg native Nathan Leeper in 1998 and including 2012 Olympic silver medalist Erik Kynard. He’s coached six high jump champs in the past dozen years alone, with Kynard (2011, 2012) and Scott Sellers (2007, 2009) each claiming multiple titles and Christoff Bryant falling just short of twin golds with a runner-up in 2016 and a victory last year.
And yet with all that talent and all that recent success, Rovelto insists he never felt better about a Wildcat’s chances than he did this week with freshman standout Tejaswin Shankar.
“This was probably the most confident I have been about someone going into the NCAA Championships,” Rovelto said. “He has had a great past few weeks of practice and I knew he was going to jump high today.”
On Friday night in Eugene, Ore., Shankar turned Rovelto’s confidence into another conquest for a program that aptly has been described as High Jump U. The 6-foot-4 product of New Delhi, India cleared 7 feet, 4.25 inches in front of 11,644 fans at rainy Hayward Field to become only the fifth freshman to win the title.
Shankar, who entered the event at 6-9.75, was one of only two jumpers who didn’t miss an attempt through 7-3 and was one of only four who advanced past that height. Alabama’s Shelby McEwen, Georgia’s Keenon Laine and Texas Tech’s Trey Culver were the others.
But when the bar was raised to 7-4.25, all four jumpers missed with their first two attempts. McEwen, Laine and Culver also missed their final tries before Shankar, the final competitor to make an attempt, cleared the winning height.
“I tried not to think about it too much,” Shankar said of his last bid at 7-4.25. “My coaching has taught me to perform in that moment and I just executed what I have been doing in my training.”
Shankar barely grazed the bar on his winning leap, but when it held K-State’s latest champ celebrated by letting out a roar and exuberantly ripping the NCAA competitor’s bib from his chest.
After securing his first NCAA title, Shankar had the bar raised to 7-6.5 in an effort to best his own Indian national record. Although he failed to clear the record height, it didn’t detract from his day.
Shankar credited the experience of competing in front of a crowd of 40,000 earlier this year at the Commonwealth Games for helping him cope with the pressure. He finished sixth at the event in Australia.
“And then today with everyone cheering on me, I could feel the Hayward magic,” Shankar said.
In addition to capturing K-State’s seventh Outdoor high jump crown and joining Leeper, Sellers, Kynard and Bryant as titlists in the event, Shankar became only the third Indian athlete to win an NCAA championship (all events).