'It was indeed a nerve-wracking experience'

A. VINOD

Anju Bobby George is now the toast of the entire nation. She made India proud by winning the first ever medal in the World athletics championships. After her great achievement in Paris, the 26-year-old has now kindled hopes of winning a medal, in athletics, in the Olympic Games in Athens next year.

Anju Bobby George proudly displays her bronze medal. No Indian athlete has won a medal in World championships before Anju. #151; Pics. S. MAHINSHA-

``It is going to be tough. But I can assure you that I will be trying my best to bring back a medal,'' said the genial athlete during her exclusive interview to The Sportstar at her husband, Robert Bobby George's residence in Peravoor. Excerpts.

Question: Congratulations on your great effort. How confident were you of landing this long elusive medal for Indian athletics when you made it to Paris?

Answer: Thank you very much. We were really confident, having spent the better part of the last four months, prior to the World championships, training in the United States, under the legendary Mike Powell, and gaining considerable exposure in the European circuit. I had trained very hard and had performed well during this period, with Bobby telling me every other minute that what we were chasing was very much a possible dream. Even when my performance dipped in Berlin, where I could clear a poor distance of only 6.28m, he just forced me to take a couple of days rest and then put me through a 15-day crash course so that by the day of the qualifying competition, I was back on peak form. I am happy that our efforts paid off eventually.

You would have been tense during the final round of competition.

Yes, especially as Jade Johnson of Great Britain, who has had a career best of 6.73m and a season best of 6.69m, was jumping behind me. I was in the lead with my 6.61m effort, after the first round before both Eunice Barber (France) and Tatyana Kotova (Russia) overtook me in the second with an identical distance of 6.74m. I had fouled my second trial and again the third and soon was left in the fourth position when Jade came up with a 6.63m jump through her third effort. Fortunately, I never lost my cool and thereafter had two good jumps. Back into medal contention after my third career-best jump of 6.70m off my fifth attempt, I was almost sure of having nailed at least the bronze, though it became clear only at the end of the competition. Being in the company of such good jumpers who had the potential to break into the medal bracket with a single jump, it was indeed a nerve-wracking experience. It was always possible for me to go out of contention.

Anju stands beside a huge cutout of her late brother-in-law, Jimmy George, an ace Indian volleyball player. — Pics. S. MAHINSHA-

But when you finally became aware that you had won India's first ever medal in the World championships, what was your feeling?

It did take quite a few moments before it really sank in. And then, I was immensely pleased and thrilled. I could see that Bobby too was happy as he waved at me from the stands, even as he accepted warm handshakes from those who sat near to him. It is hard to describe the situation. Also, I personally think, it would not have been possible but for the prayers of thousands of my friends and well-wishers who have always stood with me through thick and thin. And more importantly, the blessings of the Almighty.

What were the conditions during the competition?

It had rained just before the final and so it was quite cold. But otherwise, the conditions were quite marvellous what with a packed audience at the Stade-de-France egging all of us whole-heartedly. In fact, the crowd went just wild as Eunice Barber came up with her gold-medal-effort of 6.99m through her sixth and last attempt. It was quite an exhilarating experience especially after all the tension during the competition.

Were the other competitors friendly with you?

Yes, indeed. Despite the rivalry and the heat of the competition, all of them were quite friendly, applauding my every effort and wishing me well. It was really great fun, as I had come to know most of them during the competitions in the European circuit itself. And as I finished with the bronze medal, they all came up to me and congratulated me warmly.

And your celebration continued...

Well, that is the irony. We hardly got any time for any sort of celebration as we were flooded with telephone calls through the next four or five days from our families, friends, well-wishers and the media from back home. In fact, we did not even get sufficient time to eat and rest, we were practically left starving. Finally, however, we did celebrate by inviting a few friends, who had helped us all through our stay in Paris, and Mike Powell for a dinner at a roof top restaurant overlooking the Eiffel Tower.

It was reported that none from the Government congratulated you after you won the bronze medal.

Yes, it is true. While the Turkish President was immediately on line to congratulate Sureyya Ayhan (the 1500m bronze medallist) soon after she won for Turkey its first ever medal in the championships and the Moroccan King called Hicham El Guerroj on his mobile even as he was completing his victory lap after winning the 1500m gold for a record fourth time, we hardly had the same experience. Maybe, none expected me to win a medal (laughs). Maybe, our Prime Minister is yet to know of my effort.

However, we had this surprise letter from the President hand-delivered to us, two days after. In that, he was all praise for my medal-winning-effort and it did work wonders to lift our spirit. In his letter, the President wrote: ``Your achievement, I am sure is not only the fulfilment of a personal dream, but will also encourage many more of our athletes to dream of similar feats. I am happy that your hard work and perseverance has borne fruit. May this be just the first of many more laurels for you.'' It is definitely one letter that I am going to treasure.

You should be a bit disappointed that the Union Government is still to announce a suitable reward for your path-breaking effort.

Any reward is welcome. But, I am certainly not going to run behind it. As an athlete, I have done my duty and any recognition for that will certainly be an added bonus. I am happy that my effort has already found recognition from the Tamil Nadu and Kerala Governments and my own employers, the Customs. However, what has left me disappointed is the manner in which the Government mishandled the distribution of cash awards, which were announced soon after the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games. On our return from Manchester last year, it was announced that all individual bronze medal winners would be awarded Rs. 10 lakhs and it was expected that all gold medallists from the Busan Asian Games would be awarded Rs. 20 lakhs. And what I finally got was just Rs. 2 lakhs for my Manchester bronze and Rs. 5 lakhs for the Asian Games gold. Can you believe it, that these too I received by post! It would have been fine, if the Government had given these cash awards at a function instead of sending it by post. Also, special awards were announced for coaches on both the occasions, but Bobby is yet to receive anything so far.

But the Government did foot your bill to train in the United States and for your participation in the European circuit. Was the funding sufficient to meet your needs?

Yes, the Government was magnanimous on that account. We were given Rs. 13.79 lakhs over two instalments. And without such backing, it would have been difficult for us to manage the trip to the United States and the one to Europe. Ideally, an allotment of Rs. 20 lakhs would have been fine. With the funds made available to us, we were able to manage just about. We will know whether we have overspent only when we settle the accounts.

Anju with her husband and coach Robert Bobby George. "Bobby is the person who has been the greatest influence in my life," says the champion athlete. — Pic. S. MAHINSHA-

You had this rare experience of training under the reigning World record-holder, Mike Powell. What were the finer points that you picked up from him?

At the first instance itself, Mike Powell was happy with my jumping style and the training programme, Bobby had worked for me. Yet, it was a great and unforgettable experience, as he taught ways to improve my run-up, suggested some simple exercises to correct my running style and boosted my confidence by telling me often that I was capable of a medal in the World championships. He often invited us over to his home where we had the freedom to use his most modern gym and other training facilities. And then again, his presence in Paris was quite a morale-booster.

Did you get time to see the Americans train for major events like the World championships?

Well, unlike most of us in India, who train twice during the course of a day, once early in the morning and then in the evening, the Americans train only once each day. They normally start sometime after 10-30 a.m. But then, it continues on till 4-00 p.m. without a break, before getting a well-deserved rest. They work very hard each week and though they follow training schedules which are similar to the one followed by us, they use technology to the utmost and here I thing lies the basic difference. They have got such superior training aids for almost every discipline and it only shows why they are on the top of the world.

So, it was quite a satisfying experience for you in America.

It definitely was satisfying. But there were several problems we had to encounter and I think those going over to the United States should be aware of it. First of all, we were there only on a short-term visa and this meant that we were not eligible for a social security card. Back in the States, it is difficult to survive without a social security card, as it is required for almost everything, renting out an apartment, getting a telephone, hiring a car and things like that. This left us dependent on our friends for getting all these things done. And with these difficulties, I wanted to pack my bags and get back home at the first available opportunity. However, what stopped me from doing so was the presence of Bobby, who was cool as ever. He kept reminding me that we were there on a mission and therefore we should be prepared to surmount all these hurdles.

How was it when you moved over to Europe to participate in the Grand Prix and Golden League meets?

The major problem we faced initially was getting visas. But this was taken care of by the timely intervention of our External Ministry. And then, it was also difficult to get invitations for the various meets. But once I performed well in Rome, the organisers of the other meets were only happy to accommodate me. Almost all of them were surprised that an Indian was seeking an entry in the European circuit. This had never happened before. And at least during a few occasions, I was introduced as an athlete from Indonesia rather than from India! Of course, they were quick to correct themselves. One good thing I noticed was the professional acumen with which these meets, though organised by private promoters, were conducted. And the huge crowds that these meets attracted. Europe is indeed the seat of world athletics and it is there an athlete can look forward to earn some money. For all the advancement, there are only a few meets in the United States and little money over there. The most important meet in the States is their National championships.

Anju with her mother Gracy Markose, husband Bobby and father K. T. Markose. "Both my father and mother took considerable pains in initiating me into athletics," says Anju. — Pic. S. MAHINSHA-

How did the participation in the European circuit help you in your preparations for the World championships?

Oh! It was of great help. If we had not gone to Europe, I think it would have been impossible for me to perform so well in the World championships. More than keeping myself in competitive trim, it also helped me to prepare well psychologically.

Previously, I used to be so carried away by the manner in which the other athletes conducted themselves during the competitions. They would comb their hair, apply lipstick; giving an impression that they cared little for the competition. Seeing all this, I was often reduced to a bundle of nerves. But now I know, that they indulge in such things only to distract others from the heat of the competition and to remain focussed. It could also work as a ploy to rattle the opposition, as it used to be in my case.

Now, perhaps, we will see you employing those tactics to gain psychological upper hand over your rivals.

You can bet on that (laughs).

By and large, the standard of women's long jump was far below the expected level during this season. Do you think this has helped you considerably in winning bronze in Paris?

Europe was quite warm this year. And this I think slowed down all the jumpers. I also think that those phenomenal jumps that we used to witness in the past have become rare as serious efforts are being made to wipe out the menace of drug and doping once and for all from the world athletics scene. Now, every top athlete is under the scrutiny and hardly anyone can get away with doping.

After all the euphoria you created in Paris, you were unable to repeat the same show in Monaco, during the World athletics final.

I just did not go all out. After ten weeks of hectic work, we just decided to take it easy. There was also not sufficient time for recovery between the two meets and we did not want to risk injury.

Probably you were also affected by the loss of your personal belongings in Paris.

It just happened. I am not yet sure how the two guys managed to enter the stadium, which has the most sophisticated security system. We had left the bag right in the middle of the ground and we did see two young boys running with something. It did take some time to realise that they were running away with our bag. It was only after a while that we realised that we had lost our passports and all our credit cards. We also had a huge collection of coins in it. It was indeed a bad experience.

A quick look at your jumping sequence, during the whole of the season, reveals that you have been consistently fouling your second and third jumps. Why was this happening?

It was just that I was going all out in the second and third jumps. It was part of a calculated strategy to go in for a moderate first jump and then go all out in the second and third jumps. Unfortunately, I fouled most of those jumps.

You had the opportunity to meet two living legends of Indian athletics, Milkha Singh and P. T. Usha, the other day. What did they tell you?

They were both thrilled with my achievement. In fact, both of them said the same thing: that they were left behind with tears after the Olympic final and I should not miss the opportunity to bring back that medal which has remained elusive to us so far.

Now that you have emerged as the first Indian woman athlete to win a medal in the Commonwealth Games and the first athlete to win a medal for the country in the World championships, can we expect a medal from you in the next year's Olympics?

Well, I am aware about the expectations of all our people. It will depend on a lot of factors. But I assure all that I will be trying my best to bring back that medal which we have missed all along. And as I prepare myself for that, I require all the backing and support from the rest of the country and their prayers.

Are the growing expectations adding pressure to you now?

It is only natural. But I think that I am better equipped now than in the past to overcome the pressure. Hopefully, every thing will work out well in my favour in the end.

You started off as a hurdler and a pentathlete. And you were more or less a good allround athlete during your college days as well. Do you think this has helped you develop into a world-class long jumper?

Yes, definitely. The sound training, which I received during my school and college days, is what has helped me to win all these laurels. Being exposed to all events right at the young age itself, I could gather the finer points of most disciplines when it was taught to me by my coaches, more quickly than the others.

How will you assess the contributions of your coaches towards the advancement of your career?

It was K. P. Thomas who helped me to gain recognition at the National-level and it was T. P. Ouseph who helped me to gain exposure at the international-level. And then, it is Bobby who has helped me develop into a world-level performer. I am really indebted to all of them.

Admittedly, Bobby has played a greater role than the others.

Definitely. Without him I would have never scaled all these heights. In fact, I have been often amazed by his immense knowledge and the care with which he plans and prepares each and every outing. It was also his soothing words and encouragement that helped me to return to athletics after the two-year lay-off due to injury. Otherwise, I would have given up the sport then itself. It was he who traced out Chandran Kurikkal, the ayurvedic physician, who helped me recover from my injuries. In short, he is the person who has been the greatest influence in my life.

We heard you were a lazy student during the early part of your career.

That was when I was very young. In fact, but for the patience of my parents I would have never been an athlete. Both my father and mother took considerable pains in initiating me into athletics. Each morning, they would wake me up and take me to the NSS College ground, near our home in Changanassery, much against my wishes. My mother would have a boiled egg and a boiled plantain ready before we left home and I was often in tears by the very sight of food so early in the morning. I think I was the alarm clock for the entire neighbourhood during that period. But now, I am only happy that my parents were so caring, in helping me to become an athlete.

Some more interesting memories of your childhood.

I still remember we being chased by stray dogs as we travelled from our home to the ground in my father's scooter. And also the occasions when I used to run into those cows, under pitch darkness, tied to posts in the NSS College ground. It was great fun.

Do you remember the first medal or prize that you won?

No, I don't exactly remember. But my father used to say that I was immensely pleased with a flower I was presented. I was so happy that day. I was a student of the Lisieux Convent school, Ithithanam then and we had won the overall title for the kiddies sections. At school, we were received by the rest of the students with shouts of Lisieux ki jai. My father also said, as he took me back home, I had shouted ki jai all the way clutching the flower close to my heart.

Did you remember about the flower when you received the bronze medal in Paris?

No. I felt quiet light in my mind when I received the medal in Paris. I was so relieved of having won the first ever medal for our country. And having achieved something we had set out for at the start of the season.

What are your hobbies?

I am a movie buff. I spent most of my free time watching films. And I mostly prefer to watch light-hearted comedies and adventure movies.

About your future plans.

No, we have not planned anything. Perhaps, we will decide after the Olympics in Athens next year.