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Worlds bronze with single kidney: Anju Bobby George's shock revelation

Anju Bobby George won a bronze at the 2003 World Championships in Paris and a gold at the 2005 World Athletics Final in Monte Carlo. ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images

Around a year after qualifying for the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Anju Bobby George first learnt that she was born with a solitary kidney. The Indian long jumper tweeted the startling revelation of her single kidney condition on Monday, stirring both shock and awe. Anju created history with a bronze at the 2003 World Championships in Paris and is, till date, the only Indian track and field athlete to medal at the stage.

"I got to know about it only around the time I was returning to training after an ankle injury forced me to miss out on the 2000 Olympics," Anju told ESPN. "I could barely walk for a year after that. Slowly I resumed training but that's when I felt my body wasn't coming together. I was breaking into the international stage then and was struggling with slow recovery, frequent joint pains and finding myself in hospital whenever I took a painkiller. I would just faint if I took anything to relieve pain. Variations in blood profile were erratic, my UA levels were high and fatigue would hit pretty soon during training. All of these factors got me to go for a full body scan and check-up. It's only then I realized that I'm born with a single kidney. I was completely taken aback. I went for multiple abdominal scans to confirm if the tests were right."

The congenital solitary kidney condition, called renal agenesis, may often go undetected for people with regular lives. In athletes though, the prognosis can be difficult. "If it wasn't for being an athlete, I probably wouldn't have known about my condition at all," says Anju. "In cases of extreme pain, doctors would prescribe me very mild dose of painkillers. It would still make me giddy and uneasy but the only relief was I wouldn't faint, unlike when I took the regular ones. After the diagnosis, multiple doctors advised me not to pursue sport further. I thought since I'd made it so far without knowing about it, I might as well go the whole way."

Anju had six competitions in Europe lined up before the 2003 World Championships and during the final event in Berlin, she found herself turning remarkably bloated. "I was almost double in size. Doctors in Germany asked me to stay away from the track for six months. There's no way, they said, I should compete. I did anyway. Twenty days later, I won the World Championship bronze."

The incidence of congenital solitary kidney is approximately one in 2000-3000, says Dr Himanshu Verma, HOD Nephrology Safdarjung Hospital, New Delhi. It is, however, largely under-reported since the condition can be usually asymptomatic. "The single kidney is larger in size, assumes the function of both kidneys and in several instances people go through their whole lives with the condition undetected. But in athletes, both the impact and risk can be different," he says.

"Generally, we advise donors or persons born with a single kidney not to go for any sort of intense physical routine. The chances of trauma and injury are high and the idea is to not burden the solitary kidney's function in any manner. In sports, the training load is heavy. Also, an athlete's diet is usually protein intensive and for regular people with two functioning kidneys, the extra protein is filtered out. However, in case of a solitary kidney, there is a chance of potentially toxic effect of excessive protein intake on renal function. It's commendable to know that an Indian athlete has achieved the kind of distinction she has despite the boundaries this condition can set on an extremely active and physical life."

Anju, 43, now a coach, hasn't spoken about her condition throughout her career. This morning she says, she woke up with a casual thought of sharing it with the world. "I only realized the surprise value of it once I posted my tweet," she laughs. "I just felt with all the apprehension and negativity everywhere today, maybe my small story could trigger a tiny hope in people struggling with different kinds of limitations. We tend to feel we are worse placed than everyone else and shouldn't bother trying at all. But sometimes when you take that chance, life can reward you."