Small, frail and not even in top three – that was Shaili Singh when Anju Bobby George first saw her. But the iconic Indian long jumper still decided to mentor her as she found the youngster to be “more or less like” her with a never-say-die attitude.
Shaili was 13 at that time and had finished fifth at a national meet.
Now 17, she announced her arrival on the big stage by winning a silver in the under-20 world championships, missing out on a historic gold by a mere one cm, with a 6.59m effort, though wind assisted, in the long jump final in Nairobi on Sunday.
The Jhansi-born athlete, raised by a single mother who works as a tailor to support her, missed a chance to join the likes of Olympic champion javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra and star quartermiler Hima Das who had won gold medals in the 2016 and 2018 editions, respectively.
She is nonetheless being touted as the next big thing in Indian athletics. “When I saw her steely resolve and of course her body structure that is suited for long jump, I knew she would go a long way,” Anju said.
“Later, I found out that she is a fast learner, always tries to improve and has a never-say-die attitude. In short, she is more or less like me,” added Anju, who won a bronze in the 2003 senior World Championships in Paris.
The event Anju referred to was the National Junior Championships in Vijaywada in November 2017. Shaili had taken part in the girls’ (age group 12-14) long jump event and finished fifth with a 4.64m effort.
But her steely demeanour and lean frame attracted the attention of Sports Authority of India (SAI) high performance coach Robert Bobby George, Anju’s husband.
Anju, the only Indian to win a World Athletics Championships medal, came down to Visakhapatnam during the National Inter-State District Junior Athletics Meet (NIDJAM) and saw Shaili’s potential. Shaili was participating barefoot and had blisters on her feet as her mother could not afford shoes for her. She finished fifth, but Anju was impressed and decided to mentor her.
She decided to bring Shaili under Robert’s coaching at the SAI Centre in Bangalore and later the youngster was included in the developmental group of Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) which took care of her training and other financial needs.
The Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ) also supports Shaili. “I saw her in November 2017 and decided to bring her under me and Robert and in April 2018, she joined the SAI Center in Bangalore. It is Robert’s coaching ability that has turned Shaili into a future star,” Anju said.
“When we brought her to Bangalore, she was a frail girl covering a distance of about 4.50m. Now she has grown up and has added more than 2m in three years to her jumps,” she said.
Anju had jumped 6.59m while winning the bronze in Paris when she was 27. Shaili won the silver in Nairobi on Sunday with the same distance. But it will not enter record books as the wind speed of +2.2m/s was above the legitimate tailwind speed of 2m/s.
Shaili’s recorded personal best will be the 6.48m which she had jumped while winning the gold during the National (Senior) Inter-State Championships in June.“That shows her potential. Robert set a target of 6.60m for her in the U-20 world championships and she is just one cm short, that too in her first international competition,” Anju added.
Robert, on Sunday, had said that Anju’s national record of 6.83m set during the 2004 Athens Olympics will be bettered by Shaili within three years.
“She has tremendous potential... and I am sure she will break it by then (in three years). I will be very happy if she breaks my record,” Anju said.
Asked about Shaili’s immediate future, Anju said: “She will go for gold in the next U-20 world championships and she is a medal contender in the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games next year.”