On Sunday evening in Nairobi, 17-year-old Shaili Singh announced herself as the latest Indian track and field prospect, winning silver in the women's long jump at the World Athletics U20 Championships.
Even as she finished just a centimetre short of becoming just the third Indian to win a gold medal at the Junior Worlds, comparisons will be made with the two others - Neeraj Chopra and Hima Das. Why wouldn't they? Shaili already has the strut and confidence of an elite athlete and she backs it up on the field. She holds the Indian junior record of 6.48m and although her wind-assisted mark of 6.59m in Nairobi won't be counted in the record books, she's getting tantalisingly closer with each competition to Anju Bobby George's hitherto-unassailable 17-year-old record of 6.83m set at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
Anju -- who along with her husband Robert Bobby George coaches Shaili -- told ESPN ahead of Sunday's final, "sooner or later, Shaili will break my record."
Robert is even more bullish. "She will touch and go past 6.83 in another 2-3 years. But she will cross the 7m mark in three years. This I can guarantee," he said following her medal ceremony.
LONG JUMPER SHAILI SINGH WINS
A SILVER MEDAL with a jump of 6.59m
European Champion Maja Askag of Sweden takes home Gold with a leap of 6.60m, a centimetre better!
- Athletics Federation of India (@afiindia) August 22, 2021
Born in Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh, Shaili is one of two daughters to Vinita, a single mother who worked as a tailor to make ends meet. What she didn't have in financial resources she made up for in absolute faith in and backing of her daughter's abilities.
When she was 13, her mother pushed her to take up her interest in sports seriously. "I used to run around a lot in my school. That time, I didn't even have money for shoes so I ran barefoot. My mother read in the newspaper that a selection trial was being held and told me to participate if I was keen," Shaili said on Sunday. "I first appeared for a trial in Jhansi and then at the KD Singh Babu Stadium in Lucknow. I was selected to be part of the Lucknow sports hostel," she said.
In Lucknow, she wasn't a standout performer. When she took part in her first national tournament -- competing in the U-14 long jump competition at the Junior Nationals in Vijaywada in 2017, she didn't even make the podium -- finishing fifth with a best jump of 4.64m. Most people had their attention on the girls on the podium, and Shaili, like so many young athletes who didn't seem to have that early spark, might have fallen through the cracks. Except something about her had caught the attention of Robert Bobby George.
Robert had worked with (and subsequently married) India's greatest long jumper Anju George. He had helped her to a fifth-place finish at the 2004 Olympics and a bronze at the 2003 World Championships - the first Indian to medal at a senior world track and field event. Following the conclusion of her career, Robert had semi-retired - returning to his IT job . But in 2017, he and Anju thought up a plan to set up an academy in Bangalore in partnership with the Sports Authority of India - the Anju Bobby Sports Foundation.
Watching the Junior Nationals, Robert had been on the lookout for potential students. What he wanted was grit and determination, and not merely a podium finish. He thought he had seen that in Shaili. "When he came back to Bangalore he told me there was this girl and he wanted me to have a look at her too," recalls Anju. She did so at another competition a week later, and came to the same conclusion.
"She again didn't finish in the top four even. She was so small and frail and later we found out that was because she hadn't been getting the proper nutrition. The other girls were all bigger than her. She had no technique even. But she had heart. She had that spark. Hunger in her face. That is her attitude. It's something coaches have an eye for. She would run in and jump as hard in the first jump as in the sixth jump. Technique can be taught. The willingness to fight is what we were looking for."
She and Robert had one doubt, though -- whether Shaili would be willing to travel far away from her mother and come to a strange city with two coaches she had never met until then. She need not have worried. "She was very eager to come. And not just her, even her mother Vinitha was very keen to send her," recalls Anju. Indeed, Shaili travelled by plane for the first time when her mother borrowed money to send her from Lucknow to Bangalore.
In 2017, Bobby and I came across a young girl from Jhansi. We scouted her later that year in the junior national competition and decided to induct her into the Anju Bobby Sports Foundation in 2018. pic.twitter.com/7PAQab34ve
- Anju Bobby George (@anjubobbygeorg1) August 22, 2021
When Anju sees the progress Shaili has made, she allows herself a hint of a smile. "Now it's easy to identify Shaili. She is tall and strong and has that look of a world class athlete. But her first photo which we took... it's different. She was the smallest of all the kids we had scouted," Anju says. "It was not her or her mother's fault that she didn't get the nutrition she needed at that age. They just didn't have the money. The first step was to provide her with proper nutrition. Only after that could we slowly start to load the body. It was almost as if we were incubating an egg. We made her body as strong as it needed to be to train her," says Anju.
The fact that Shaili only had five months of training before they started working with her was a boon, says Anju. "We consciously didn't want to work with already well trained athletes. We were looking for fresh athletes... [they are easier] to teach," she says.
Anju knows this from personal experience. "I only started working with Bobby when I was 21 years old. By that time, I had so many injuries because of wrong training. For a long time, people would criticise Bobby, questioning who he had coached apart from his wife. Only I know how much effort and planning it needed to coach me. I had a long-standing injury in my takeoff leg. I had only one kidney. My training was as much about managing injuries as preparing for competition.
"Despite all of that, I was at one point doing jumps of 7.15m in practice. But Shaili has been working with Bobby since she was 14 years old. That is her privilege. Her only focus is training. Her mind is free. At 17, I was struggling for coach, training ground, equipment. I missed this golden age. She is already an elite athlete. Sometimes I joke with Bobby, that after working with me, he has a much easier job training Shaili" says Anju.
Robert adds that he is still being cautious with Shaili's training. "I'm not loading her right now. Although her power level relative to her age is world class, I'm going to wait until she's 18 before I actually start increasing her workload. In the last three years, what we have worked on is developing her fundamentals and her speed. Right now, her core strength is her speed on the track," he says.
Shaili too responded to the care and facilities she was receiving. "After 6-7 months of training, there was a visible difference. Some kids, however much you give, they won't respond. Her development was fast. Her mind is almost like a blackboard. As a coach, you just write on it and she immediately picks it up," says Anju. Within a year of moving base, Shaili broke the under-16 national record at the Junior Nationals in Ranchi in November 2018 with a leap of 5.94m.
However, Shaili's progress appeared to be under threat in 2020 after the SAI Bangalore campus was closed (due to the COVID-19 pandemic) to junior athletes in order to focus on the seniors who had qualified for the Olympics. While many junior campers were sent back home, Anju and Bobby made the decision instead to take Shaili and the seven other athletes they work with into their home in Bangalore. With synthetic tracks and stadiums out of reach, Bobby started training Shaili on the one acre-property. "We just dug a hole in the property and used it as long jump pit. It wasn't ideal, there wasn't enough space for a full run-up or complete extension in the jumps, but Bobby adapted the training for that," says Anju.
Even that modified training in a jerry-rigged ground couldn't stop Shaili's talent from shining through. At the Junior Nationals this year, Shaili broke the Junior National Record with a jump of 6.48m.
"Bobby is completely spending his salary on them. While we are getting funding from SAI and others, there are some needs for which extra money has to be spent. There are expenses on nutrition, equipment, apparel and sometimes for hotel stays when they travel for accommodation. But these girls are like our extended family so we don't even keep accounts of this funding," says Anju.
Following her medal ceremony, Shaili was asked who she would dedicate her medal too -- her mother or her coach. "I will dedicate it to sir. Mummy only took me to sir. It is sir who got me to this level," she says.
Robert thinks that there is still a long way to go, but he's supremely confident about her prospects. "What I like about her is that whenever I set out targets for her whether in training or in competition she always pushes herself past them. She is very young but has the determination of a much older person. In the qualification round (of the World Championships) our target was 6.34m and she did 6.40m. In the final, our target was to cross 6.55m and she did 6.59m. Although we are disappointed she missed out on a gold medal here, Shaili has bigger tournaments in front of her. She will be a medal contender in Commonwealth Games and a gold medal contender in the Asian Games," he says.