When Tejaswin Shankar’s first American scholarship offer to play in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) arrived, he was in disbelief. “I thought it was some kind of scam. Aapko koi leke bhi jaa raha hai, padha bhi raha hai, rakh bhi raha hai, aur sab kuchh free mein,’ (your travel, education and stay are all free I thought it was some kind of kidnapping racket,” he told The Indian Express earlier this month.
Later, when he realized he would be part of a system of over 500 schools, each specializing in a different sport, in the best collegiate competition in the world, he became an advocate for it.
“If it’s free and we can use it, why are we relying on the government to spend millions of rupees on sports budgets? Trust your athletes to come home and perform at a high level,” he said.
Tejaswin’s conviction paid off. The 23-year-old high jumper’s bronze medal at the recent Commonwealth Games was one of 45 medals won by athletes from the NCAA system, in track and field alone. No less than 21 of those medals were gold, in various events such as sprints, marathons, discus throw and triple jump. The medalists come from all over the world, from Africa and the Caribbean, as well as from the United Kingdom and Australia.
Today, American colleges are full of hugely successful international student-athletes. At the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Eugene this year, 15 champions came from countries other than the United States, including Tunisia, St. Lucia, Morocco and Zimbabwe.
One of those 15 champions was Tejaswin. The high jumper is a six-time All-American and set the Indian National Record of 2.29m while competing for Kansas State University in 2018. At Hayward Field, he became the second Indian to win two NCAA championships, alongside Somdev Devvarman. .
Devvarman himself is one of 13 players to win back-to-back Division 1 tennis titles at this level, the second of which saw him post a 44-1 win-loss record. Less than a year later, he became the first Indian since Leander Paes to reach the final of an ATP event at the Chennai Open, where he entered the main draw as a wildcard.
Devvarman is another advocate for young Indians taking the US scholarship route. However, he points out that the sport played must be taken into consideration: athletics, golf, tennis and swimming are all at an elite level in the NCAA, but sports such as badminton or table tennis do not. are not.
The former top 70 player told The Indian Express that there were things he had learned and unlearned – on and off the pitch – while going through the system, without which he was not likely to become the player he has become.
“I think a big question that any athlete, or anyone in general, needs to ask is ‘what are your metrics for success? Do you define success as simply winning medals or trophies? Because I’ll be honest, that’s not how I saw it,” he said.
“I joined the University of Virginia in 2004, which was one of the best NCAA Division 1 programs. But I wasn’t very sure I could turn pro. What mattered to me was to have the freedom to play. Do what I knew best. And there, with the structure and organization that they gave me, from strength coaches to taking care of my nutrition, I felt I had that freedom,” he said.
En route to the NCAA title in 2007, Devvarman defeated future two-time Grand Slam finalist Kevin Anderson in the semifinals and then future top-10 player and USA No. 1 John Isner in the final. He believes the exposure he gained, training and competing with some of the best young players in the world, was crucial to his development.
“In the 2006 US Open, Andre Agassi, in the last match of his career, lost the third round to Benjamin Becker (of Germany). In my first year here, Becker won the NCAA title with Baylor (University) I remember watching that game and thinking, “If he can do it, so can we.”
Success breeds success, and there are plenty of success stories in the NCAA, he said.
A pool of medalists
The track record of athletes who have come through the NCAA system, especially internationals who often play on scholarships, seems to vindicate Devvarman’s view.
He and Tejaswin aren’t the only top athletes going the NCAA route. In the late 1960s, triple jumper Mohinder Singh Gill went through the system before winning medals at the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games. Discus thrower Vikas Gowda was the NCAA champion in 2004 and 10 years later won a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. And today, athletes from various disciplines participate in it.
But Devvarman thinks more scholarship-eligible Indians should take advantage of the structure the NCAA can provide. “For any athlete, the hardest leap is going from a successful junior career to the pros. There’s a huge leap between the two. That period is usually when they’re in college, between 18 and 22 years old. Playing regularly and taking care of your body at that time is so crucial,” he said.
Devvarman announced his retirement from touring in 2017, and while many may associate him with broadcasting now, he had a brief stint as a coach in Germany, where he worked with promising young Indians like Sumit Nagal. and Karman Kaur Thandi, whom he thinks can benefit from the support he enjoyed at that age.
“They (Karman and Sumit) struggled with injuries. I remember having experienced the same thing in this phase. But in Virginia, I had dedicated training rooms, I could do scans, get the right rehabilitation process, the right advice, the right training program.
“Honestly, in India it can be quite difficult. The whole ecosystem does not exist, and if you want to create it, you have to pay exorbitant costs,” said the former tennis player.
An athlete’s career is short, he says, and in their developmental years they are one untimely injury away from reaching the heights they can. During these years, having a support system can be crucial.
“I want more people to make the smartest decision. And more importantly, I want more people to know the choices they have,” Devvarman added.
Despite all the obvious opportunities an NCAA scholarship can provide, the lack of accessibility is a challenge.
There are different divisions in the system, and earning a top-level Division 1 scholarship involves fierce competition, not only on the field, but also academically. Most schools have qualification criteria for their scholarships, which include competitive test scores as well as minimum grades at all levels of higher education. It requires a certain level of academic inclination and proficiency in the English language that a junior national champion, who does not come from a privileged background, may not have.
There are also financial constraints. Schools at the top of the competitive curve are likely to award 100% scholarships only to a top recruit, and it’s even rarer for international students. Thus, if financial aid is the primary concern, a student-athlete may have to choose a lesser school, which could harm their development, to ensure that their education and training does not come at a cost. too high.
Tejaswin’s case also highlights the apprehension of Indian sports authorities. The Delhi-based athlete was snubbed by the Indian Athletics Federation for the Asian Championships in 2019, not acknowledging his results in the United States after missing out on the Federation Cup. Before the CWG this year, barring last-minute legal intervention, history was about to repeat itself.
Devvarman puts these constraints into perspective before advising young athletes to follow the same path as him. He maintained that, in his experience, the NCAA focuses on developing well-rounded athletes, which has value beyond sport.
“It depends on your priorities. A lot of student-athletes I’ve trained with realized they couldn’t get to the top or didn’t want to. They then found success in other things in life, for which a good education opened doors for them. But if winning medals and competing at the top is the priority, and 100% of the purses are not on the table, those things should be kept in mind,” he said.
AT CWG 2022, Athletics:
· A total of 45 medals were won by athletes from the NCAA system. Of these, there were 21 gold medals.
The main beneficiary countries:
Nigeria – 10 medals, 5 gold
Jamaica – 8 medals, 2 gold
Trinidad – 5 medals, 4 gold
Canada – 3 medals, 3 gold
Australia – 3 medals, 2 gold
· Tejaswin Shankar of India won the bronze medal in the men’s high jump.
Complete Break: In CWG 2022 Track & Field, medals won by athletes who went through the NCAA