Long jumper Shaili Singh, 17, brought up by a single mother who learnt tailoring to earn a living, won a silver at the World U20 Championships in Nairobi on Sunday. Mentored by long jump great Anju Bobby George and coached by her husband Robert, Shaili missed out on gold by a centimetre but established herself as a star to watch out for. Incidentally, Olympic gold medallist javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra became the U20 world champion five years ago.
In her third jump, Shaili leaped to her personal best of 6.59 metres to move into provisional first place after dropping to fourth at the end of the second round. Sweden’s European Junior Champion Maja Askag, however, edged her out in the fourth round by the narrowest of margins to eventually win the gold. Shaili’s previous best jump was 6.48m.
Shaili’s next two jumps were fouls. She regrouped, hoping to better Askag in the last round. She clasped her hands in prayer on completing the jump, but bent down and hit the track repeatedly with her palm in disappointment when 6.37 metres was displayed on the electronic board.
Mariia Horielova of Ukraine was third with 6.50 metres.
India’s #ShailiSingh wins silver in the women’s long jump with a personal best* of 6.59m at the #WorldU20Championships . Misses gold by a centimetre to Sweden’s Maja Askag, the junior European champion. pic.twitter.com/fMDMnnceYO
— Express Sports (@IExpressSports) August 22, 2021
Shaili’s eyes filled up before she regained her composure, and held the Tricolour over her shoulders to cap a successful evening in her first international competition in the Kenyan capital at 1,795 metres above sea level.
The journey she made from Jhansi to Nairobi in her nascent but promising career has been full of metaphorical uphill climbs.
As a young girl, she ran without shoes, but braved blisters to compete in school-level competitions. Her family found it hard to put three square meals on the table. Mother Vinita is an ardent fan, and the first person she calls to update on results.
“My mother told me before the final not to worry. She expected me to win gold. Next time, I will win gold. I wanted to hear the National Anthem being played at the stadium. As she is a single mother, it was difficult for her but my mother looked after me, my sister, and my brother,” Shaili said.
National record-holder and senior world championships bronze medallist Anju expects Shaili to reach greater heights and win an Olympic medal for the country.
“She can improve on the national record (6.83 metres). Our main target for Shaili is to help her finish on the podium at the Olympic Games, which is the most valuable thing. If our trainee can win a medal, I will consider it as my own,” Anju said.
Before the World U20, coach Robert had set Shaili a target of 6.60 metres knowing that her explosive speed on the runway would be tough to match.
“She meets my targets usually. But I know she is capable of bigger things. She is a teen athlete but has the spirit of an adult. I can promise that she will rule the athletics circuit in the next 10 years. It was her first international competition and she won silver at the world championships and I am glad about it,” Robert said.
Shaili is the first from her family to take up sports. She has her mother to thank for encouraging her to pursue track and field, though the family wasn’t well off. It was Vinita who alerted Shaili about selection trials being held after seeing a newspaper advertisement.
Shaili was inducted into the Lucknow Sports Hostel but her big break came after she caught Robert’s eye, even though she finished outside the medals and had no proper technique at the National Junior Athletics Championships in Vijayawada in 2017. A week later, Anju spotted her at the Inter-District Junior Championships, and the couple agreed they had found an athlete with the potential to become the next big star.
“She was a rough diamond. To be able to find an athlete like this is a valuable thing. We knew if we guided her, she would make it big,” Anju says.