The first jump at the Indian Grand Prix in Bengaluru earlier this month brought relief for Shaili Singh. Her effort of 6.58 metres was a significant improvement from the underwhelming 6.27 metres she had registered at the Asian Indoor Championships in Kazakhstan in February. More importantly, she had attained the qualification mark for the Asian Games in Hangzhou that will be held in September-October this year.
“It helped my confidence, since the goal was to make the cut for the Asian Games in my very first jump,” Singh, 19, says.
The plan that Singh and her coach, Robert Bobby George, put together was on track. In the next moment, she had a new target in sight. It was now time to chase 6.83 metres - the national record for women’s long jump held by Anju Bobby George since 2004, which had given her fifth place at the Olympic Games in Athens.
“Achieving this mark is really important for me. After the silver at the under-20 World Championships in 2021, Anju ma’am and my coach had told me about the record and that I should be the one breaking it. It’s become my sole target now - mujhe abhi bas wohi dikh raha hai (it’s all that I can think of for now),” she says.
A foul on the second jump took her outside her comfort zone. She knew the next one demanded her best. That effort landed her 6.76 metres - just seven centimetres shy of Anju Bobby George’s record and the second biggest jump attained by an Indian woman.
“Just a week before the Indian Grand Prix, I had jumped 6.62 metres during training, so I certainly wanted to go beyond 6.60 metres. And of course, I had the record on my mind,” Singh says.
Besides the two foul jumps, all four efforts were better than her personal best of 6.41 metres. The relief was palpable after all that she has endured over the last year.
During the under-20 World Championships, Singh picked up a lower back injury that ruled her out for around nine months. The first couple of months demanded bed rest. She tried to distract herself with PUBG gaming and movies, but all along, her mind was on getting back to training.
“It was quite difficult since I had never suffered a major injury. It was very difficult to watch other jumpers train. I was mentally disturbed and often cried. My coach and physio helped me a lot during this time,” Singh recalls. “That injury taught me to be really patient. Sir kept telling me - you are a strong girl and you are healing fast. And he had faith that I would still be able to jump well on my return. That gave me hope that things would get better,” she says.
After making her comeback in May last year, Singh built up gradually to achieve a personal best (6.41m) by October at the National Open Athletics Championships in Bengaluru. But it was way short of her wind-assisted 6.59 metres from the under-20 World Championships. The team realised she was still a work in progress (6.27m) after the first competition of the season this year in Kazakhstan.
“My runway was not set at all and I was getting scared during the takeoffs. The back injury constantly played on my mind and getting rid of the fear took some time. I repeatedly watched videos of my jumps and analysed where I was making mistakes,” Singh says.
“I used to be quite bubbly and would take time to settle down. But now I know how to sit patiently and understand the importance of being calm. It’s really working for me and I’m at ease these days,” she adds.
Singh’s rise to India’s top long jumper has been rapid. Back in 2017, she was into running disciplines and the high jump. That year, she attended trials at the KD Singh Babu Stadium and moved from her hometown of Jhansi to the sports hostel in Lucknow. It was where she had her first feel of long jump. Four months later, she was at the under-17 junior nationals.
At the event, Robert Bobby George, Anju’s husband and coach, who had guided her to a World Championships bronze in 2003, saw potential in Singh and asked if she wished to train under him in Bengaluru. She was still only 14.
“I had heard of Anju ma’am and her academy from a senior at the hostel, Deepanshi Singh. She told me that I should consider myself lucky if I could train in Bengaluru. So when the call came, I knew I was indeed very lucky,” she says, smiling.
At the Anju Bobby Sports Foundation, Singh got her first real taste of what the long jump was all about. “I initially thought it was easy to jump in the sand, but as I began understanding the technique, I realised it was really tough. Once I started enjoying it, I got really good,” she recalls.
A few months later, she had smashed the under-16 national record. And there’s been no stopping her since. “I love the feeling of being in the air - like a bird, soaring. It’s my comfort zone and I don’t experience anything else in that moment. I’m just happy. And I love feeling this way over and over again,” she says.
Back in a familiar groove, Singh hopes to make the cut for the World Championships in August and wants to put in a good performance at the Asian Games. And of course, continue her hunt for the elusive 6.83 metres in the months ahead.
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based freelance writer