For Shaili Singh, it was a phone call with her mother, Vinita, which inspired her to change her career trajectory. When compared to the calls that they used to have daily, this one hit different.
Shaili, who was training with long jump legend Anju Bobby George at the time, said, “Normally my mother and I just speak about my training and how things are going, but that day I remember asking what her hopes for me were. She said, ‘I want everyone to know who Shaili Singh is.’”
During the four years since, Vinita Singh’s dreams for her daughter slowly took shape. In 2021, at 17, Shaili jumped 6.59m to set a new junior national record and won a silver medal at the Junior World Championships in Nairobi. She would improve on that mark a couple of years later at the Indian Grand Prix in Bangalore in March 2023, where she recorded a giant leap of 6.76m. That vaulted her to second position on the all time Indian list, behind only Anju.
Anju, who set the national record of 6.83m in the finals of the Athens Olympics 19 years ago, has already tipped Shaili as her heir apparent. “Shaili will break my record,” she told Sportstar.
When reflecting on how far she has come, Shaili can scarcely believe it. The daughter of a single mother who worked as a tailor to make ends meet, she was picked out of obscurity by Anju and her husband, Robert Bobby George, after they saw her finish fifth at a U14 national tournament in Mangalore. “Sometimes, I wonder why Anju ma’am and Bobby sir picked me. I only jumped 4.64m and I was only fifth in that competition where they saw me. But now I feel very lucky that I’m in a position where people have high expectations of me. In fact, everyone tells me I’ve achieved a lot. But I feel I have to do more,” she said.
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While Shaili doesn’t know why she was picked and found it very awkward to ask her coaches, Anju has no hesitation in answering the question. “There are certain things that are needed to be a quality athlete. You need a good coach, basic talent and a high IQ, especially in a technical event like long jump. But what matters most is the never-give-up attitude,” said Anju.
“Shaili had no technique when we saw her. She was small and physically not impressive. But when you saw her run you knew she was fast and most importantly she ran in for her last jump with just as much intensity as her first jump. She had that never-say-die attitude.”
It’s that same belief that Anju says will be crucial for Shaili during the next stage of her career. “Until now, her training was comparatively easy because she was so young. She also had a few injuries (Shaili suffered a back ailment that limited her performance in 2022), so we couldn’t push her that much. But as she grows older her training pattern will become more vigorous. It’s not easy to push yourself each day in the way you need to if you are trying to become an elite competitor. Sports training is not easy. It challenges the body every day. There is no comfort zone in training. Every day we need to show that killer attitude. I think Shaili has that,” said Anju.
What also matters now is how focussed the youngster can remain as she inevitably draws attention due to her performances. Anju said, “As she jumps better and better, there will be a lot of things that would distract her. The world can be tempting. That will always be the case. Shaili has to find a way to maintain the fire inside her. What will help is that I’m there to mentor her and Bobby is there to coach her. Whatever we have learned from our experiences is there for Shaili to learn from. She has been with us ever since she was a young girl, so she trusts us. Shaili also can see the changes in her own performance. That gives us confidence that she will stay focussed. But at the end of the day, she must build and maintain the fire inside herself.”
Shaili insists she has the desire to push herself. She has already met the qualification standards set by the Athletics Federation of India to select the national team for the Asian Games in September this year. As things stand, she would be a favourite for the podium considering she holds the best jump by any athlete from the continent over the past two seasons.
“The Asian Games and the World Championships (July) are major goals for me. I’ve qualified for the Asian Games. I’ve not yet qualified for the Worlds (qualification standard 6.85m) but I will try,” said Shaili.
Above the doorway in her room in Bangalore is a hand-painted poster that says, “Hangzhou 2022” (the Games were originally meant to be held there last year but were postponed due to the COVID pandemic).
“Last year I had wanted to qualify for the Commonwealth Games but because of my injury I wasn’t at my best physically. Because of that the Asian Games are very important for me. I painted that poster last year. I want that to be the first thing I see when I wake up in the morning, so I am really focussed,” she said.
But the Asian Games or even the World Championships are not the most important targets for Shaili. That would be the Olympics. “Main goal toh wahi hai. Mere liye bhi Olympics dream hai. (That is my main goal. The Olympic Games are a dream for me),” she said.
In fact, if Shaili has a poster of the Asian Games on her wall, she has the Olympic rings as her phone wallpaper. She will have to improve even more if she wants to make a mark at Paris 2024. A jump of 6.76m would have only been good enough for 8th place in Tokyo, while 13 athletes have already exceeded Shaili’s personal best this season. What Shaili does have though is self belief.
“I know that if I wasn’t injured last year, I would have been able to perform better. But because of the injury, I wasn’t very fit. This year, I have been able to prepare a lot better. I have built myself up very well. I’m physically stronger, but I think I am also mentally much tougher. That is the main improvement in me,” she said.
While an Olympic medal might seem a steepling task, Shaili knows it can be achieved. “After Neeraj Chopra won the Olympic gold in javelin throw, I got a lot of confidence. If he can do it, even I can. Just like Neeraj was the first Indian man, I want to be the first Indian woman to win a medal (in athletics) at the Olympics. When Anju ma’am broke the national record at the Olympics, she became so famous. That is what I want for myself also. Everyone knows who Anju ma’am and Neeraj Chopra are. I want people to also know who Shaili Singh is.”