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She once ran barefoot with blisters on feet. Today Shaili Singh is World No.1 u-18 long jumper

Shaili Singh's coach Robert Bobby George believes the teen athlete will outperform former world champ and his wife Anju Bobby George.

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New Delhi: With one smooth jump covering 6.15m at the Inter-state athletics championship in Patiala, Shaili Singh Saturday broke a record that remained untouched for 21 years. In two more turns, the long jumper from Jhansi not only broke the youth-national mark of 6.10m, but the under-20 nationals record (6.30m) with a distance of 6.38m and finally her own record, by jumping 6.48m. In a way, Singh was competing with herself.

A thrilled Anju Bobby George, the former long jump world champion and the first Indian athlete to win a medal in the World Championships, shared the news on Twitter over the weekend: “This is an extremely emotional moment for all us, considering all the hard work and effort we have put in to come this far. Onwards and upwards! (sic)”

No one, though, seems to be prouder or more satisfied than the man who coached Singh since 2018 — Robert Bobby George, who is also Anju Bobby George’s husband.

Robert first spotted Singh at a junior competition in 2017. Only aged 13 at the time and weighing barely 38 kg, Singh was jumping a distance of 4.63m, hardly a spectacular feat. But what caught his eye, Robert told ThePrint, was a certain spark in the young athlete that showed how determined she could be.

“She knew she was not going to win a medal but was even then going all out. Call it a coach’s eye but I knew it was something special,” said Robert.

A month ago, Robert had brought up that old competition with Singh. He asked her what she had been thinking then. “She told me she was pumping herself up. She said she did not have a coach at the time… so was telling herself only, ‘Come on, Shaili, you can do it’,” he recounted.

It’s perhaps this very grit that helped Singh overcome the several hurdles to becoming world no.1 in the under-18 category, besides setting a new under-20 record in India. One of three siblings raised by a single mother, Singh contended with financial burdens, moved nearly 1,700 km from Jhansi to Bengaluru to achieve success.

The daughter of a tailor, sometimes a day’s meals were a luxury for Singh. However, it was her mother who encouraged the teen into sports, Singh had said.

“Forget spikes, we could not even afford a pair of normal running shoes … I started running barefoot and would often return home with blisters on my feet. My mother would weep at the sight,” Singh said in another interview.

Also read: From bamboo bows and arrows to World No 1 — The remarkable journey of archer Deepika Kumari

‘Shaili is an Olympics medal contender, will surpass Anju’

A week after Robert first spotted her at the junior competition, Singh also caught his wife Anju’s eye at another competition in Visakhapatnam. “We both noticed the same person without knowing the other did,” said Robert.

By early 2018, Singh had moved to Bengaluru to train with Robert. “She came up to me very coyly, hiding behind another athlete, asking if I would train her. I jokingly asked her, ‘will your height grow?’,” Robert recalled from the 2017 junior championship event.

But Robert was aware it wasn’t just her athletic skills Singh had to work on. He knew she came from tough conditions and barely had any money to spend on anything, he knew her mother had to borrow money to buy an airline ticket to send the girl to Bengaluru.

“Whether the system supports or not is secondary, it is now our (Anju and my) responsibility,” he told ThePrint.

In training, the main focus was to ensure Singh’s physique improved and that she gained weight. In a span of 10 months, she ended up gaining 13 kg.

The other focus was correcting her fundamentals. On this count, Robert believes the task is easier and in fact, is one of the reasons why he believes the teen could go on to outperform Anju.

“She (Singh) came to me at a very young age … so there was no unlearning to do, which is very difficult,” explained Robert. Anju had won her first medal when she was 25 years old.

In November 2018, a year after Singh was spotted by the Georges, the athlete was noticed by the Olympics Gold Quest (OGQ) at a competition. A non-profit sports foundation, the OGQ scouts for talent and manages athletes. Singh also received additional support from the Sports Authority of India (SAI) — she has been helping provide for her family using her stipend and scholarship.

The efforts paid off in November 2019 when Singh broke the national record for both under-16 and under-18 with a jump measuring 6.15m. Aged 16 at the time, she had also qualified for the Junior World Championships, which is for under-20s.

When one sees her make that smooth wide leap, it’s clear Singh means business. There’s a singular focus on going the distance. When she lands, she nonchalantly walks back, getting ready for her next jump.

In an earlier interview, the seemingly shy teen said she was happy she had qualified for the World Championships, but knew she had a lot more to do going forward.

“I was telling Anju, there is something special in this child. She is very receptive and her ability to learn is much higher than other athletes. The country can expect a lot more from Shaili. She will be a medal contender in the 2024, 2028 and 2032 Olympics,” said a confident Robert.

‘A lot more work to do still’

At this point, Robert considers himself not just Singh’s coach but also her buffer from the rest of the world.

“I don’t want [her] to face the media just yet, she is only in 11th standard. Don’t put pressure … if she wins a medal at the World Championships, then maybe. There is a lot more work to do now,” he said when ThePrint asked to speak to Singh too.

On Robert’s methods, the OGQ official incharge of Singh said the coach had made a big difference to the athlete as he knew the circuit well and selectively chooses the tournaments she competes in, which is very important.

“She jumped 6.48m after a gap of 19 months, she is capable of a lot more. But we need to take it one step at a time,” the official said.

For now, the focus remains the World Championship which is set to take place this August.

(Edited by Manasa Mohan)

Also read: For isolated athletes, Tokyo Olympics promises to be the weirdest ever games


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