Soon after her teenage daughter Shaili Singh was selected for the junior national camp in long jump, her mother Vinitha, a tailor in Jhansi, borrowed money and bought a one-way air ticket - from Lucknow to Bangalore.
Shaili was travelling unaccompanied. Knowing that she would be in the safe confines of an aircraft gave the mother peace of mind. It was a better option than the 48-hour journey by rail to south India. Moreover, the mother didn’t want her 14-year-old daughter to waste any time.
After all, the call to convince her to send Shaili to the Sports Authority of India’s (SAI) training centre in Kengeri, a suburb in Bangalore, had been made by high performance coach Robert Bobby George, who had coached his wife Anju to a world championship bronze in long jump.
Less than a year since Shaili moved base, the youngster broke the under-16 national record at the junior nationals at Ranchi in November. Her leap of 5.94 metres - achieved at an age when she hasn’t completed her growth spurt; she currently measures 167 centimeters and 49 kilograms - is being talked about as a special feat for someone who till a year ago didn’t have a specialised jumps coach.
"I believe that Shaili will be able to break my national record of 6.83 metres which has stood for 14 years. She has the potential to become a world-class athlete," Anju says.
Jumper from Jhansi bucks the trend
The women's long jump in the country has been dominated by the likes of Anju Bobby George, Mayookha Johnny and Prajusha Maliakhal over the past two decades and other athletes from the south of India. While there has been a good number of male long jumpers, most athletes from the Hindi belt have traditionally made a name in either middle and long-distance track events or power disciplines like discuss throw, javelin and shot put. However, the discovery of Shaili Singh who hails from Jhansi and another promising long jumper, 18-year-old Deepanshi Singh - a native of Rai Bareilly - has raised hopes of the untapped potential in the horizontal jumps from this region.
There is merit in Anju’s prediction when Shaili’s record jump at Ranchi is compared to those who came before her. Asian Championship bronze medallist Nayana James had held the meet record in the under-16 category with 5.79 metres achieved in 2010.
The rise of Shaili can be traced back to a fortuitous string of events a little over a year ago. George was at the girls’ under-14 long jump final at the 2017 national junior athletics championships in Manglagiri, Vijayawada. Shaili had finished fifth with a middling distance of 4.64 metres but the coach looked beyond the result.
What he saw in the youngster was raw talent, lean muscle tone and the physique of a born jumper. A strong-willed attitude even when she had been beaten convinced him that he had chanced upon a rough diamond.
"She didn’t have a specialised coach, and her technique was poor or rather she had no technique. She was just running and jumping but she was not willing to give up. Her body language remained positive till her sixth jump. I could see the determination on her face," George recalls.
He didn’t know her name at that point in time but took mental notes and passed it on to his wife Anju. She followed up at the national inter-district a week later. Shaili finished outside the podium again, but Anju came back with videos and the athlete’s phone number. The husband-wife duo concurred that the 14-year-old from Jhansi was worth investing their time in.
"The advantage when it came to Shaili was that she hadn’t received any formal long jump coaching. She was also just 14 when she moved to Bangalore in February last year. So we could start from scratch, which was good because there was no ‘bad technique’ which I had to change. Moreover, she was a keen learner who is extremely dedicated. She wants to be the best," George says.
Shaili has adopted the hitch-kick technique but the coach says the youngest of the six trainees at the camp is a work in progress because this is the stage when she has to be handled with kid gloves. "I have not started any advance training, be it technique or physical workout. She has not started weight training yet. Her muscles have to develop naturally and her bone structure too will mature," George says. "She has just turned 15 so she has a lot of time on her hands. She will be eligible to participate in two world junior championships. There is no need to rush her. Our aim is to target the 2024 Olympics."
Shaili didn’t bat an eyelid when Anju first asked her if she was keen to join the national camp. She jumped at the opportunity and was ready to leave her home state without a hint of hesitation.
She has her mother to thank for encouraging her to give athletics a shot.
"My mother read in the newspaper that a selection trial was being held and told me to participate if I was keen. She knew that I was interested in sports, so she always backed me. I first appeared for a selection trial in Jhansi and then at the KD Singh Babu Stadium in Lucknow. I was selected to be part of the Lucknow sports hostel where I spent about five months before I moved to Bangalore. It is at the national camp that I was taught about long jump technique, the importance of diet and rest and recovery. I have been able to improve my personal best by a metre since moving to Bangalore," Shaili says.
The six athletes at the junior national camp stay at the SAI hostel in Kengeri and are supported by the Anju Bobby Sports Foundation, which sponsors their education, kit and gear and also travel. Anju is at hand to guide the trainees, all of whom are put through blood profile tests, bio-mechanical analysis and psychological evaluation.
Anju says that the teenage jumpers are starting from where she left off. "When Bobby was coaching me and I was participating, at times we were following a trial-and-error method. But now we have the knowledge and the experience gained from competing against the best in the world and winning medals. We know what needs to be done. I am confident of developing a bunch of women jumpers who will be able to consistently cross 6.50 metres," Anju says.
The former athlete’s estimation of how far Shaili can go is subject to she being injury-free and other factors which are not in one’s control. But the early signs are promising, she insists. "When I was 14-15, I used to jump about 5.40 metres. But that was a different era. We trained on mud tracks and didn’t have spikes. So it would not be accurate to compare two eras when the facilities were different. But I believe Shaili has the potential to become a world-class athlete. We are there to take care of her and she is talented. I had to struggle and rise but she is really lucky as she can train with a single coach and has access to a good training centre. Now it is up to her to make the most of it."