Long jumper Shaili Singh watched the men’s javelin throw final at the Tokyo Olympics on her phone. The 17-year-old was glued to the screen as Neeraj Chopra ended India’s athletics medal drought. Keeping track of the Summer Games for the first time in her life, just a week before she was to travel for the World U20 Athletics Championships, the historic gold has spurred hope in the long jumper to dream big too.
As the country is revelling in this post-Olympic celebration, she’s hoping to prolong the festivities by capturing a medal at the Championships in Nairobi. Stars have emerged at the world event – Chopra finished atop the podium in 2016 and quarter-miler Hima Das was the first Indian to win a gold medal on track two years later. “I did not follow the Rio Olympics. I wasn’t really into athletics five years ago,” she says.
“This time I watched with full josh. When Neeraj won the gold, I was dancing with the other athletes I share a place with. Seeing an Indian athlete win such a big medal was inspirational.”
The teenager from Jhansi moved to Bangalore three-and-a-half years ago to train with Robert Bobby George. Robert coached his wife Anju when she won a bronze medal at the 2003 World Championships – a year before Shaili was born. Now that she’s ready to compete at her first ever international tournament, she’s been googling ‘weather in Nairobi,’ and searching for pictures of the Kasarani Stadium in the Kenyan capital.
“The weather is nice (19 degree Celsius). It will be like Bangalore in December or January. I am targeting a distance which (Robert) sir has given me, which is 6.60 metres. Sir says that I am in that range. If I achieve my target, even if there is no medal, it is okay,” she says self-effacingly.
Modesty aside, she is one of the favourites. On the provisional entry list for the long jump, she is the fifth-best jumper.
Her ‘linear’ and ‘steady’ improvement makes Robert confident of Shaili not being overawed by the magnitude of the competition. Breaking two age-group records in one competition in June was a special effort, the experienced coach says.
Before travelling for the National Inter-State Athletics Championship in Patiala in June, Shaili had not competed in nearly two years because of Covid-19 restrictions. She could not train on a synthetic track because stadia were closed.
On her return, Shaili didn’t hold back. She broke the National Youth record before setting a new national U20 mark, a new personal best of 6.48 metres. “That jump in Patiala… She was about 15 centimetres behind the board. She is in the 6.50-plus club right now,” Robert says.
“It is not going to be easy. I am sure if she improves on her personal best she will be in the medal bracket. Even with 6.48m she is capable of winning a medal as it is better than the silver medallist from the last U20 World Championships (in 2018) and just three centimetres less than the gold medallist.”
The coach has spoken earlier about Shaili being destined to break Anju’s long-standing national record of 6.83 metres. The speed on the runway, fast twitch muscles, ability to grasp technique and clarity of thought is what sets her apart from the former jumper. An athletic body and a mind like a sponge makes her a pleasure to coach, says Anju.
“For someone who is just 17, she is a quick learner which is needed in technical events. She has that spark. What we tell her, she is ready to absorb without any hesitation. We are protecting her like an egg shell. We are not giving her full-swing training, it is very precise training for her. Lucky thing is her muscles are very strong. Her genes are different and she has fast twitch muscles. That is a big advantage,” Anju elaborates.
An X-factor is the natural speed she has in the run-up to help her cover the distance, like an aeroplane accelerating before take-off.
“Speed is an advantage as it came to her naturally. I had to teach her the right-running skills. Power can be developed but in long jump speed is a must. Her joints and muscles are still developing. She has to be on the field for more than a decade. But in the process, I have to ensure that she develops no muscle imbalance,” Robert says.
The association between the coach and the long jumper began nearly four years ago. Robert saw her jumping at the junior national championships in Manglagiri, Vijayawada. Shaili finished fifth but the coach didn’t go by just the result. He made a call to her mother Vinita, a tailor by profession.
Eventually she agreed to send her daughter to Bangalore. Vinita has stopped tailoring because of a constant migraine, Shaili says.
Her mother follows her competitions keenly and she is the first person Shaili gives result updates to. “Mummy is very happy. She is a little worried because this is my first competition abroad,” Shaili says. “But she always encourages me. Mummy has said don’t worry, ‘ache se, shanti se karna’. Then it will work.”