Indian athletes in US fighting loneliness, uncertainty as NCAA season scrapped

Written by Shahid Judge
| Mumbai |

Updated: March 19, 2020 9:17:18 am

Tejaswin Shankar is the national high jump record holder. (Twitter/TejaswinShankar)

“If I try to go back to India, there is a possibility that I may contract the virus during the journey. Even if that doesn’t happen, I’ll have to go into quarantine when I reach India, so that means I cannot train for two weeks.” Tejaswin Shankar (National high jump record holder)

Tejaswin Shankar queues up in front of the ‘performance table’ – the special place in the Kansas State University cafeteria dedicated to organising food for the college’s athletes. The 21-year-old has to follow procedure, collect his box of food and head home immediately—there is no avenue for him to have his lunch or dinner on campus. The college, after all, is in lockdown. And the high jumper has no choice but to take trips to the performance table for meals. He had tried getting food elsewhere, but the protein-rich milk and eggs, staple to his diet, have been sold out at his local grocers since the coronavirus scare hit the United States.

At the St John’s University in New York, Aditya Vashist is allowed to make a few trips to the sports centre of his college to collect tennis balls or other training equipment whenever required, but not train on campus. The college is shut and in the process of getting sanitised. So every day, the 20-year-old from Bikaner makes his way to the public courts near his apartment along with his teammate Udayan Bhakar. On an ordinary day, the 20 courts are crowded to the point that there may just be four or five vacant. Now, amid the pandemic scare, there are at least 15 courts available for use.

Further south, at the Northern Arizona University, 19-year-old freshman Sanjana Ramesh was looking forward to US college sports’ showcase event–the men’s and women’s basketball conference finals. But the season got cancelled.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) last week decided to cancel the season as a precaution to the coronavirus pandemic, causing the greatest disruption to a NCAA season in history. This, however, was a necessary step. “This decision is based on the evolving Covid-19 public health threat, our ability to ensure the events do not contribute to the spread of the pandemic, and the impracticality of hosting such events at any time during this academic year given ongoing decisions by other entities,” said an NCAA statement.

Along with the sporting season, colleges themselves have decided to shut down and conduct classes online. It’s a decision that has left Shankar, Vashist and Ramesh alone, fending for themselves.

Sports grooming on American soil

For long, the NCAA has been an assembly line that provides athletes with training, facilities, and a sense of competition under the near cut-throat rivalry that exists at the college level. It is tools like these that have attracted the Indian trio, and several others, to pursue their sports grooming on American soil.

READ | Tejaswin Shankar joins elite Indian club of NCAA champs

“There have been many players from India who have gone through the US college system and made good careers because of it,” says Vashist. “In one place you get to train under coaches, work on your fitness, and also get a glimpse of what lies ahead. How you have to stay fit, what all must you do to get better, and just how to be more professional in what you do.”

Participation at the NCAA level also puts an athlete in front of an array of scouts (for team sports like basketball) and sponsors (Nike, Adidas, et al), who may sign up the player once they graduate. For basketballers, especially if you’re an international student, this is the most prominent route to enter the NBA.

With the season getting cancelled, the future of several budding athletes has been thrown in disarray “It is a loss in terms of development. I still get to train but missing opportunities like our post-season and watching NCAA tournament affects development as well,” says Ramesh. “I am still lucky to be training here but it’s hard because tournaments and training camps which scouts watch are cancelled. This affects international players because college coaches and scouts have never seen them before while they were playing at the school-level.”

‘Ghost town’

College campuses all over the United States have been closed as a precaution for the pandemic. The seven-day spring break has been extended by a week, following which, classes will resume online. It’s a situation that has encouraged students to leave campus and go home, wherever in the world it may be.

This solution – send students home and conduct classes online – works for those in the college for academic pursuits. For those on sports scholarships, it’s a different problem. “If I try to go back to India, there is a possibility that I may contract the virus during the journey,” says Shankar, the national high jump record holder. “Even if that doesn’t happen, I’ll have to go into quarantine when I reach India, so that means I cannot train for two weeks.”

In Vashist’s case, access to tennis courts in the US is much easier than in India. Near his apartment in New York are public tennis courts that have been near-deserted ever since the coronavirus scare hit the US. India’s highest ranked player in the NCAA circuit – now placed 65, though he had gone up to 40 – goes to the courts every day with his teammate, armed with an ‘outline’ his coach gave him once the NCAA season was declared cancelled.

READ | As coronavirus spreads, Olympics face ticking clock and a tough call

“The warm-up is for 30 minutes, which includes a lot of running and sprints. Then we get on court and practise our shots. Forehands down the line, inside out, cross court, then the same for the backhand side, then the serve. Once that’s done, we play sets,” he explains.

“In a way, it’s kind of a different approach for us because now we get to spend more time on court. During college, because of assignments and homework, we’d probably spend about two and a half hours in training per session. Now we’re on court for four, five hours. The only disadvantage is that the coach cannot be here to help. But he keeps in touch over the phone.”

Shankar, however, is yet to design a concrete plan on how to maintain fitness and match sharpness away from the university campus. In fact, the city of Manhattan in Kansas, where his university is situated, is near-empty. “Sunsaan sa jagah ho gaya. College campus now has a ghost town kind of feel to it,” he says.

“Everybody here had started to panic when the outbreak happened. When the season was cancelled, I thought I’d just go to the supermarket to get some milk and eggs, but everything was sold out. In the panic, people bought out all the toilet paper, frozen and canned foods, milk and all. And there’s no scope of a new stock coming soon. I’ve heard stories of people stealing stuff from the janitor’s supply closet as well.”

Instead, he’s been forced to spend most of his time in his apartment, watching all he can on Netflix and playing Call of Duty with his roommate.

Thrown off course

As Vashist rose through the NCAA rankings, he got a call-up to be a hitting partner for a player at the US Open last year. The Indian stands at a height of 5-foot-8, not among the taller players on the college circuit. “Lots of them are over six-feet and have big serves, so that was a struggle for me when I started here,” he says.

It just so happened that at the US Open, he got the chance to be the hitting partner for World No 13 Diego Schwartzman, who is an inch shorter than Vashist. “He told me how he deals with the big servers, on the need to work on the agility to make the returns, on anticipating and building up speed,” Vashist says. “So those are the things I had worked on and was looking to test myself this time. That won’t happen for now.”

Similarly, Shankar was gearing up to compete at an NCAA meet in New Mexico when he got news of the season being cancelled. “They had a very nice track there and I was looking to target a height of 2.3 metres-plus (which would have been a national record),” he laments. “Ajeeb feeling hain. We worked the entire year towards this, but now it won’t be happening.”

Ramesh, meanwhile, still in her first year at college, was looking to experience her first glimpse of the level at which athletes compete in the March Madness.

All three have been thrown off course because of the season being cancelled. And all chances of getting back to competing at meets remains doubtful, for this year at least. It has caused a stir in the NCAA circuit, as tournaments have been called off shortly before the start of a match – just as it happened when players from the University of Michigan and Rutgers University were ushered off court just before their match could start.

For those players in their final year of college, as Shankar puts it, there is no closure to a college career dedicated to shaping their individual sporting capacities. For the Indian trio though, there is at least a year left (three more for Ramesh) in their college careers to improve before they think of turning professional. But in this day and age where only the fittest survive, a year lost keeps them that much further from being ready for the pro challenge.

Inputs from Shivani Naik and Andrew Amsan

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