Unlike most teenagers, long jumper Shaili Singh, 15, doesn’t mind updating her mother with every minute detail of her eventful life. Over the past few months, besides text messages about the exact contents of her meals and her whereabouts, she has been sending pictures of her standing on top of the podium. For Shaili, India’s most talented emerging athlete and widely regarded as the next Anju Bobby George, winning gold medals and breaking records has become a routine occurrence.
Last week, Shaili broke the under-16 national record for the second time in a year. Bettering her earlier mark of 5.94m, she jumped 6.15m at the Junior Nationals in Guntur. The distance bettered the under-18 mark too. It wasn’t a freak jump for the girl from Jhansi as she had soared over six metres in four different competitions in a month. Apart from winning the gold, there was another reason for celebration — she had qualified for the World Junior Championships in Nairobi, Kenya, next year.
One of the first things Shaili did when she got access to her phone was forward pictures from Guntur. “My mother is very happy that I am making progress. Till date, she has never watched me jump in a competition. Next time if there is a tournament in Uttar Pradesh, she will definitely travel to watch me. So that’s the reason I never miss a chance to tell her about my career,” Shaili says.
Mother Vinita, a single parent, has for years worked as a tailor to bring up her three children — two girls and a boy. She runs a small unit, the profits from which have gone into the making of the country’s big athletics hope. However, with no one from the family into sports, Vinita had her doubts when Shaili wished to pursue long jump with all seriousness. But it was a phone call that change her mind.
Robert Bobby George, Anju’s coach-cum-husband, saw a spark in the teenager and was keen to take her under his wings. Vinita, after thinking hard, took a leap of faith. It was an emotional moment when Shaili packed her bags to move to George’s training base in Bangalore. That was to be the start of the long-distance relationship between mother and daughter. After days of early anxiety, the mother is now relaxed. “She is not worried about me being away from home and in a different part of the country because she knows I am in safe hands,” says Shaili.
George is convinced Shaili is an outstanding talent and goes as far as to say there hasn’t been a more promising athlete since Anju, India’s only senior world medallist in track and field. He sees a bright future for Shaili, who he had first spotted at the junior nationals two years ago and went about trying to convince her mother he was the right person to mentor her.
“Shaili has got great potential. I see her as being the face of Indian track and field in the next few years. She needs another two to three years to develop into a complete athlete. For her age if you compare her to athletes around the world, she is fantastic,” the acclaimed coach says.
Going by the Under-18 rankings, the youngest age-group for which the IAAF ranks performances, the 15-year-old’s 6.15m mark puts her at 19th place in the world. The list is topped by a 6.64 jump by Italy’s Larissa Iapichino.
George predicts Shaili being at the same level by the time she turns 18.
He says one of Shaili’s advantages is her age. “In technical events, seldom do we identify talent at an early stage and rarely does such an athlete get the right kind of guidance. She is still in the learning stage but even now she has tremendous speed, which is good. She has better speed than strength. The ratio isn’t perfect but once she grows and develops more power, the balance will get better. If she generates more power, her jumping ability will improve. Her physique is very balanced and muscle symmetry is also fine. For her age, she is fine. You can’t expect the technique of an elite athlete from a 15-year-old,” George says.
What has impressed him the most over the past year is Shaili’s ability to think on her own and become self-reliant.
The coach wasn’t pit-side during two competitions in September, the Karnataka State meet and the South Zone Junior Athletics Championships, yet Shaili gave her best and crossed the six-metre mark in the under-16 category to win gold. “She is focused and dedicated. When at 15 you can manage to perform without your coach around, it speaks volumes about your maturity,” George adds.
He is not the only one impressed with the progress Shaili has made. Athletics Federation of India’s high-performance director Volker Herrmann, who witnessed the under-16 girls’ final in Guntur, believes it is worth investing in the young athlete.
“It (6.15m in Guntur) makes her one of the top jumpers at her age in the world right now and points out to her great talent. The next few years will show whether she has the potential to succeed at the senior level too,” Herrmann says.
Shaili isn’t getting ahead of herself and is prepared to bide her time. “I have followed the technique and training plan of my coach. I know I will have bigger challenges ahead. With the kind of guidance I am getting, I am confident of getting better. The aim was to touch 6.30m this year. It didn’t happen but I am not worried as I trust the training system. It is just a question of time.”