Anju Bobby George’s leap of faith

Halfway through a chat with athletics coach Robert Bobby George, his wife Anju, India’s lone medallist at the World Championship, walks in with a bright, warm smile. She seemed to possess a telepathic understanding of the line of interaction. Bobby was devotedly talking about sports, and nothing else, despite futile nudges. Flashing a knowing smile, she says: “That you can’t expect from him. Good Luck!”

Georges, after a period of deliberate hiatus from active sports, are back in the news. Together, they are moulding Shaili Singh, India’s brightest hope in long jump since Anju herself and whose early promise was vindicated by a silver medal at the 2020 U-20 World Championships in August. Three months after the feat, the World Athletics Federation adjudged Anju as the Woman of the Year for her contribution to the sport and gender equality in the country.

After Anju’s retirement, a decade ago, Bobby decided to take a break and recline to their quiet life, raising children and building his dream house. The rigours of the past decade needed an outlet. “It was a much-needed break. Both our children were born. I bought a small patch of land in Wayanad and tried tea plantation,” he says.

But not for long could they keep sport out of their heart. Their comeback, but in a different avatar, was inevitable. “My passion, my work, everything is athletics,” says Bobby, younger brother of the inimitable Jimmy George.

Although away from active coaching, he keenly followed the developments on the athletics circuit and kept an eye on young talents like current long-jump national record holder Sreeshankar Murali. Bobby suggested a major tweak in the youngster’s technique and it helped him improve his distance by a few notches.

Anju Bobby George in action. (File Photo)

Then in 2017, Athletics Federation of India’s planning committee chief Lalit Bhanot asked if Bobby could spearhead a junior coaching program. Bobby agreed. This wasn’t the first time that Bhanot had pushed Bobby into coaching. Back in 2000, when Bobby’s jumping career had hit a roadblock after injuries, Bhanot asked him to focus fully on coaching. “He told me to just leave. He said, ‘Your career is only this much. Focus on coaching Anju and we can expect something big from her.’ Without any formal certification, he introduced me as Anju’s coach at the national camp.”

Unofficially, he was already coaching Anju. In 1998, when Anju’s coach left the camp, Bobby volunteered to mentor her. “Whatever has happened it was good for Indian athletics… The journey is not as simple as you believe,” says Bobby, a mechanical engineer graduate.

The conversation shuttles between the past and the present. It’s inevitable, for he links the greatest long jumper in the history of the country with the one that could be the greatest yet in the future.

When Anju met Bobby…

Nostalgia filters through the crisp morning air. Anju vividly recalls seeing Bobby for the first time, at the gym. “I just saw him. We didn’t speak. Back then it was almost like a crime to talk to boys.” It was a bit later when Anju was stranded at the camp without a coach that they first talked.

Anju asked Bobby if he could help her with the run-up measurement. “That’s how it started. He then began helping me with the training. Our training times were the same, we spent hours together but never spoke about anything else apart from sports. We were very focused,” she recounts.

Gradually, both Bobby and Anju grew fond of each other. Two years later, Bobby proposed. “I said no,” says Anju, bursting into peels of laughter. “I liked him but I said no because I was a bit scared. You know how society was back then. I was a little hesitant and I initially said no,” she recalls.

Training continued as usual. But it didn’t take much long for Anju to reconsider her decision. “I realised soon that marriage would be the best option. We both liked each other and were spending all the time together. I asked him to talk to my family and they agreed,” she says.

“We knew marriage would also lift our travel restrictions. We could go out together for training and competition. It was also one of the reasons we decided to get married,” adds Anju.

She insists that they are contrasting personalities. Bobby loves his Ghazal playlists while Anju dismisses it as “slow” music. Bobby is often blunt and straightforward when dealing with people while Anju believes tactfulness yields better results. While Bobby never tires of talking about athletics, the Worlds bronze medallist feels taking a break now and then is a good idea.

“We are very different people. He’s the artistic kind. He loves designing, he’s interested in farming. I don’t have the patience for all of that. Even this morning he was talking about sports and I asked to give me a little break,” says Anju, who tied the knot with Bobby in 2000. Jovial banter aside, the couple has huge admiration for each other.

Best of both worlds

Shaili Singh Long jumper Shaili Singh. (File Photo)

The chalk and cheese partnership has worked, not least in yielding two historic Worlds medals. There could be more, as Shaili is touted as India’s brightest hope of a first-ever Olympic medal in long jump.

They spotted Shaili at a U14 meet in 2017. Even though she had finished fifth, they foresaw a potential star. Even though she had “no technique”, her physique, lean muscle tone and raw talent impressed them.

Shaili, a student at St. Benedict’s School in Kengeri, trains with 12 other junior athletes under Bobby in Bangalore. Bobby has never shied away from heaping praise on the youngster who he believes will dominate the world circuit. Months ahead of the junior worlds in Nairobi in August, he made a calculated prediction that Shaili would jump 6.60m. Shaili took the silver with a best jump of 6.59m, just a centimetre short of the gold medal spot and Bobby’s prediction. “I told you what Shaili was capable of. I have delivered, right?” says Bobby, his eyes gleaming with pride.

Bobby firmly believes that Shaili has taken such massive strides only because of the dual inputs she gets from Anju and him. “Being with a champion gives you a lot of confidence. Being with the coach of a world-beater is double impact,” feels Bobby.

Anju Bobby George, Shaili Singh Anju Bobby George (left) with her ward Shaili Singh (Twitter/Shaili Singh)

“I started coaching Anju in her 20s so there were some niggles that I could not iron out. That is not the case with Shaili. I have worked with her from the scratch and at the moment, she is in the middle of our six-year development program,” adds Bobby.

Shaili, almost subconsciously, has picked up Anju’s mannerisms. Like her casual attire. “I went to meet the sports minister the other day and he said we look very similar,” says Anju.

Shaili shares a close bond with Anju and her children, Andrea and Aaron. During the second lockdown, the Sports Authority of India decided to send all the trainees back home. But Shaili and a few others wanted to stay in Bengaluru to give their school exams and continue training.

“I had a vacant house near to my home and let them stay there. I told them since it’s COVID, we can’t hire help. I used to get the groceries and proteins and they used to cook and enjoy,” says Bobby.

Shaili likes Bengaluru so much that whenever she visits her home in Uttar Pradesh, she starts planning her return. “Ghar pe maan hi nahin lagta. (I don’t feel that good staying at home). I keep thinking about training. I love it in Bengaluru. I love spending time with Aaron and Andrea. I also love to play Punjabi music and dance,” says Shaili, who is in charge of mopping and sweeping duties since she is the youngest of the lot.

Whenever a new trainee joins Bobby, he hands them money and sends them to the nearest sports apparel store. “I want my athletes to dress smartly and feel good about themselves,” says Bobby. “We are not only performers but we also entertainers,” adds Bobby.

Ahead of the junior Worlds final in Nairobi, Shaili’s physio Zeba had some extra work to do. Not on the sports front though. “I am her physio and also her make-up artist too,” she says. Shaili looks online for the latest fashion trends. “I love to dress up.”

“When I used to put makeup before competitions people would ask me why it was needed. But I wanted to look presentable and feel good about myself. I wasn’t always like this. Bobby only helped me in this area,” says Anju. After all, he could do things you don’t expect from a sport-obsessed coach too.

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