For years, whenever she walked away from meets after one or two big jumps, Anju Bobby George would notice a strange look in the eyes of fellow long-jumpers and officials.
“People used to look at me suspiciously then after my one-jump meets. They may have wondered why I was not jumping further,” said the Olympian and India’s lone World Championships medallist. “This revelation clears everything.”
Anju had been carrying a secret for nearly two decades, and she chose to reveal it in a tweet recently: The 2003 Paris Worlds bronze medallist was born with just one kidney instead of two.
“It was a top secret. You all thought I was a perfect athlete, but I often gave hints without revealing the full details. I used to have swelling in my leg frequently. There used to be heavy pain, but I could not take painkillers because I was allergic to them. I suffered blackouts when I took painkillers and had to be frequently admitted to a hospital,” said the 43-year-old former Asian Games and Asian champion.
“Once, at a meet where J. J. Shobha had finished close to me, I had come to the competition directly from the hospital bed. I had fainted two days before that,” said Anju.
When she first realised she had a single kidney, Anju did not know whether to laugh or cry.
“After I qualified for the 2000 Olympics, my ankle injury returned. I stayed away for six to seven months and I could not do the Sydney Games. When I restarted training, there was big swelling in my legs. I was exhausted and I felt that I did not have enough recovery. I took tablets to stop the pain and a little later I fainted and was taken to a hospital in Bengaluru,” she said.
“The doctor said I should undergo a full checkup. During the checkup, he said he thought one kidney was missing. There were no 3D or 4D scans those days. I asked, ‘You can’t see my kidney?’ I told him to look again closely. He said it was not there. Then we went to a few other hospitals, met doctors in Bengaluru and in Kerala for their opinion.”
That confirmed the rare condition.
“The doctors said it was okay in normal cases, that there would not be any problem. They said if I had not gone for a scan, I would not have even known about it. But since I was doing athletics, they could not say how the body would react. They explained that the frequent swelling in my leg and fatigue could be because of that. They had not seen anybody participating in sport at the international level with such an issue. They said I had to decide whether to continue with sport,” said Anju, who finished fifth at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
Anju and Robert Bobby George, her husband and coach, were in a dilemma.
“We had not started international sport then. We had big ambitions. We knew we could make it, and I could not think of a life or a dream outside athletics,” said Anju. “Then Bobby did a lot of research. He said, ‘You follow your dream, I will help you.’ He researched what the worst-case scenario would be and introduced special training for me.”
Slowly, Anju’s career appeared to be back on track. But there was a huge low in 2003, which turned out to be her big year.
“In 2003, just before the Paris Worlds, I was very fatigued. I had heavy swelling. The doctors advised me not to do a competition for six months, but I did not tell anybody what the reason was. Nobody except Bobby and the doctors knew about it.
“Bobby’s training workouts were very precise. It was training in a sort of capsule format since I could not take the strain and stress that normal athletes were capable of. Bobby’s training schedules were very fine. They involved very careful planning,” she said.
The couple pulled off a miracle as Anju won the long jump bronze at the 2003 World Championships in Paris — the country’s first. It had taken Bobby, an engineer, just 20 days to bring about a great change in Anju.
Shock and surprise
If many were shocked by Anju’s revelation, there were many who were surprised by the timing, too.
“I thought this is a time when everybody is trying to come out of the pandemic, a time when everybody is trying to turn to something to motivate them. Everybody will understand how difficult it was for me. Still, I overcame all these and achieved all that I did. Now, by revealing this, I want to motivate athletes and even the common man,” explained Anju.
“Had I revealed these things during my jumping days, everybody would have thought I was trying to gain sympathy. I’m not looking for sympathy; I want to motivate people. I’m a mature athlete now. I’m looking at the world and sport from a different angle.
“I got hundreds of calls from all over after that. People who had participated with me spoke to me with deep sympathy. They were very upset. They said, “We’ve been together and we did not even know this. It must have been very difficult, but you didn’t show it even once.’ It was a shock for everybody. Even my trainees said, ‘You had told us everything, but you did not tell us about this.’”
Plans to lead fight against doping
Anju is strong woman and currently holds a new responsibility as a senior vice-president of the Athletics Federation of India, and she plans to lead the fight against doping in sport in the country.
“Now I’m free... I can support my brand name, I can do ads. Earlier, I could not directly earn from other sources as I was a government employee. Now, I want to explore ‘Brand Anju’ more. I think even now Anju the brand is worth a lot. And my brand is not over with my active career. I’m continuing that through my athletes. The legacy is continuing through my academy,” said Anju, who recently took voluntary retirement from Customs in Chennai to try out other things.
“There was no promotion in Customs for a very long time. I joined in 1998 and I got my first promotion, as superintendent, in 2009. After that, I did not get any promotion,” she said. “Also, being in Customs, there were some restrictions on my foreign travel. Now, I’m planning to tie up with big groups, big schools to support their sports activities — to take sports to a larger scale.”
The champion long-jumper, who needs funds for her new Anju Bobby Sports Foundation at Kengeri in Bengaluru, has already signed up for a few new projects. “I’ve signed a five-year contract with Tattva School in Bengaluru. We will help with their sports, too. They are putting up a synthetic track there. Then there is the Milo Home Ground programme for schoolkids.”
She has a lot on her hands now and will have to do a fine balancing act.
“And our own academy, once the synthetic track work is over, we will shift our athletes to our centre at Kengeri. The track work should be over by the middle of next year. That is the main thing and the rest will run parallel.
“I’m supporting our athletes technically, but Bobby is doing the full coaching. But there is no plan to take on a coach’s role because Bobby is doing that far better than me. So, I don’t need to worry about that,” said Anju.
Is there a plan to enter politics like many other top athletes in the country?
“No, no... But you can’t say. Anyway, not for the time being.”
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