Long jumper Shaili Singh bounces back from injury under Bobby and Anju’s guidance

Anju has tipped Shaili as her heir apparent for many years now. She and Bobby had scouted Shaili six years ago after watching her compete at the U-14 Junior Nationals.

Published : Apr 18, 2023 11:04 IST , NEW DELHI - 8 MINS READ

Shaili Singh jumped 6.76 metres at the Indian Grand Prix-4 in Bengaluru on Saturday — the second best ever by an Indian after Anju Bobby George’s 6.83 metres at the Athens Olympics.
Shaili Singh jumped 6.76 metres at the Indian Grand Prix-4 in Bengaluru on Saturday — the second best ever by an Indian after Anju Bobby George’s 6.83 metres at the Athens Olympics. | Photo Credit: MURALI KUMAR K

Shaili Singh jumped 6.76 metres at the Indian Grand Prix-4 in Bengaluru on Saturday — the second best ever by an Indian after Anju Bobby George’s 6.83 metres at the Athens Olympics. | Photo Credit: MURALI KUMAR K

Shaili Singh stepped a few centimetres over the take-off board on her second jump at the Indian Grand Prix in Bangalore on Sunday. The 19-year-old grimaced as the red flag went up. It wasn’t just because she had fouled her attempt but because if it had been legal, the jump would probably have been the biggest of her career. “That probably would have been a national record,” says Anju Bobby George, holder of the national mark of 6.83m set at the Athens Olympics, watching alongside the jumping pit at the Kanteerava Stadium.

While Shaili was at least momentarily disappointed, Anju remembers grinning at the moment. She turned to her husband and Shaili’s coach, Bobby George, and looked to mock punch him in jest. “I was teasing Bobby. I said if Shaili got the record, I was going to hit him hard. We have this long joke that Bobby has been trying his best to ensure that someone breaks my record,” says Anju.

A jump later, Shaili found the take-off board cleanly. This time the digital board flashed 6.76m. That mark hoists Shaili to second-best in the all-time Indian list – only behind Anju – and the world leader in the outdoor competition this season. And while it is still seven centimetres short of her mark from Athens, Anju is confident her record isn’t going to last much longer. “I will be happy if the record goes. And I will be happier when Shaili gets it. I know it will be a genuine record because I know how hard she has worked to get it,” says Anju.

Anju has tipped Shaili as her heir apparent for many years now. She and Bobby had scouted Shaili six years ago after watching her compete at the U-14 Junior Nationals. Shaili didn’t even make the podium then, but Anju and Bobby saw something in the youngster. They convinced her mother – a single parent – and brought her from her home in Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh, to train with them in Bengaluru. In 2021, Anju’s belief was vindicated when Shaili set a new junior national record and became the first Indian long jumper to earn a place on the podium at the Junior World Championships. At that time, Bobby had confidently predicted that in two years, Shaili would be jumping close to Anju’s senior record.

Indeed while there is happiness at Shaili’s performance, there is also a relief for both Anju and Bobby. While she has lived up to Bobby’s prediction, the road has been hard as she has been battling injuries and results that didn’t match her undeniable talent.

The injury diagnosis came right after the silver at the World Under-20 Championships in Nairobi. “At first, we thought it was a kind of muscle soreness, but it was diagnosed as a kind of lower spine stress fracture. It’s an injury common in fast bowlers when they rock back before delivering the ball. I knew (Pakistan pacer) Waqar Younis had a similar injury. But I had not known it occurred in long jumpers. Shaili had picked it up because she was leaning back after her take-off to pull her legs up,” says Bobby.

Shaili had to spend the next eight months unable to jump or train. “For the first two months, she had to take bed rest. After that, we couldn’t do exercises like squats or even jumping. That was a hard period,” admits Bobby. It was particularly hard for Shaili, who faced the possibility of a career being cut short just as it seemed ready to take off. “She was very dejected at first. She was crying for a few days. But after a few days, I told her ‘Shaili stop it. Now we have to chart how to make things right,” Bobby says.

What helped in such a situation was that Anju and Bobby knew what to expect, having gone through very similar situations in their career. Anju’s career – creating history to become the first Indian athlete to win a senior world medal and take fifth place at the Athens Olympics – is the stuff of Indian sporting legend. What wasn’t known till much later was how she had to overcome a serious injury to her take-off leg while battling complications caused by a kidney ailment.

“Like Shaili, even I was only 17 when I picked up my first serious injury. It took me several years to be able to walk properly again. Jumping was not even in the picture at that time. It took a lot of baby steps to get to that point,” she says.

She credits Bobby, a former mechanical engineer, with managing her recovery and eventual rise as an elite athlete. “I couldn’t have done it if it wasn’t for Bobby. Together we managed my injury and all the complications because of the kidney issue. At that time, there wasn’t a lot of knowledge, and we aren’t medical professionals. But Bobby learned a lot, not just about training but also about rehabilitation, recovery and injury management. Because of that, we had experience in what to expect. The rehab program Bobby had charted for Shaili was very precise. He knew what to do and what not to do,” says Anju.

It was her coach’s complete confidence in charting her recovery process that allowed Shaili to believe. “Initially, she was at a very low point psychologically. You can understand why. It was her first serious injury. That created doubt in her mind about whether she would come back. But Bobby and I both tried very hard to keep her motivated. We kept talking to her. We even brought her mother down to Bengaluru. I think having me as an example helped her. If Bobby could help me go from nothing with an injury to my peak as an athlete, surely he could do the same for her,” says Anju.

Bobby got Shaili to buy into his training as well. “I had been working with her for two-three years already at that point, and in that time, your athlete will reach a stage where both of you are on the same wavelength. I told her ‘Shaili I have taken you this far. I have faced a similar issue with Anju. If you think you can’t get back, then it won’t be possible. But it is possible. And she blindly believed in me. We wouldn’t have got to this level if it wasn’t for that belief,” says Bobby.

Over the past year, Bobby has progressively built up her strength. The pace of her recovery was slow. Over the year, Shaili took part in seven competitions and recorded a season-best of 6.41m, well short of the 6.59m she had touched at the Junior Worlds. There were more than a few naysayers. “When she started making her comeback, she didn’t have such great jumps compared to what she had done at the Junior Worlds. People were quick to say she was done as an athlete. Perhaps that was because not many knew she had a serious injury, and we wanted to keep it that way. At best, we would get sympathy, and at worst, her rivals would feel happy. We told the people who needed to know and from whom we would get actual support. We were able to use the strength and conditioning facilities at Sports Authority of India, and OGQ (Olympic Gold Quest) provided us with a physio specifically for Shaili. That was a big help,” says Bobby.

Despite the modest – by her standards –results, Bobby says he wasn’t worried. “We couldn’t push her in training as we did for Anju. The year 2022 was essentially a transition year for her. We made a lot of changes to her training pattern. It set the platform for her to perform this season,” he says.

Indeed, Shaili’s much stronger now than she was two years ago. “Over the year, Shaili’s power clean (a compound lift) has increased 18 per cent from what it used to be. She’s faster on the runway now. She used to have a 16-step 34m approach to the take-off board, but since she’s quicker, that has increased to an 18-step stride 39.2m long approach.

Ahead of the Indian Grand Prix, he was confident Shaili would have a big jump in her. “There are various parameters based on which you can predict how she would jump. I don’t believe in giving false confidence to athletes. But based on measurable variables like strength, speed and coordination, we can make a reasonable assessment. Ahead of the IGP, I thought she would do around 6.70m.

With the season just starting, Anju and Bobby are confident she will go further. “She has a really big jump and a national record in her. But we want to see it at a major event or at least a competition in Europe. She is going to break my record. She has that capability in her, and more importantly, she has the advantage of being able to manage her recovery very well. I didn’t have that opportunity, but Shaili is still in her golden period as an athlete,” says Anju.

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