Anju Bobby George is, till date, the only Indian track and field athlete to win a medal at the world stage, but had it not been for husband-coach Bobby, the long jumper wouldn't have made it to the 2003 World Championships.
India was supposed to start its four-month countdown to the Olympics this moment. But forced into an unprecedented, grim lockdown as the world battles the Covid-19 outbreak, sport is staring at unfathomable despair. Indian athletes though have given the country reasons to rejoice in the past. The Indian Express looks back at a bunch of these memories in ‘Those Months, Those Minutes’.
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At the end of a month and a half of training and competition, long jumper Anju Bobby George hit her nadir at an inopportune time — just three weeks before the 2003 World Championships scheduled to begin at the end of August.
Anju and her coach-husband Robert Bobby George, had made Spain their base as they travelled across Europe to participate in six competitions before the big one. A month-long stint with world-record holder Mike Powell in California, to iron out some technical issues, had gone well and medals came in meets at Madrid and Stockholm. But in Berlin, the last one on her schedule, Anju’s form evaporated and she could jump just 6.29 metres. The distance was poor but the bigger concern was her body, ‘bloated, sore’ in her own words. The doctor’s diagnosis thereafter should have killed the dream of a world championship medal.
“My body was literally double the size, I felt heavy. The doctor looked at me and asked me to take six weeks off. Fatigue because of the cycle of competing, training, travelling had taken its toll,” Anju says.
What Robert and Anju hadn’t account for was the severe heatwave in Europe that summer and Spain was scorching, even for a Malayali accustomed to heat and humidity. Anju threw in the towel.
“I told Bobby (Robert) that I want to go back to India. It would be a shame if I did badly at the World Championships. I was worried people would make fun of us as we had spent so much money and time to prepare for the World Championships,” Anju recalls.
Robert dangled a carrot. He coaxed his wife to travel to the city of love. “Bobby asked me ‘have you ever seen Paris’? And I said ‘no’. So he said, ‘let us go see that city. Come, it will be fun. Forget about the world championships for now’. I agreed and we travelled.”
Robert’s diversionary tactic worked as he knew he could eventually get Anju to jump three weeks later at the Stade de France. Anju went on to win the bronze, the only medal by an Indian athlete at a senior World Championships.
Till then fourth-places finishes on the world stage were glorified for decades, an extra coat of heroism added with every retelling. It meant that the nation’s collective belief had been numbed into thinking that just missing out for Indians was as good as a medal.
Once they settled down in Paris, Anju rested for the first two days, while Robert took a stroll to take a look at the athletes’ village and — at that point unknown to Anju — collect accreditation cards.
When after two days, the swelling in her body hadn’t reduced, Robert asked her to jog in a park to see if some light exercise would help. “You can’t travel back to India if your joints are swollen. So try warming up,” is what he told Anju. The next step was to get her to see the village. She stayed there with the other athletes. Robert had to wait another day till his accreditation came through to join her.
Anju’s mood perked up and soon she was ready to jump and train, but without stretching herself. She also went to the gymnasium to lift weights. “I was lifting more than my maximum in snatch and clean (and jerk). Things were falling in place. But I didn’t realise it immediately. At that point, I was not planning to participate.”
Anju was almost in a trance, her mind free from the pressure of having to compete at the championships, but her body was fast recovering. Just days before the first round of the women’s long jump, Anju put on her spikes and jumped. “I just put 80 per cent of effort but jumped 6.76 metres. Mike Powell, who was in Paris, saw the jump and came running and said ‘you are flying’. When he last saw me, I could barely move. He was pleasantly surprised. Bobby’s strategy of slowly getting me back into shape, step by step, had worked. Bobby had detached me but made me do all the physical work,” Anju remembers.
Soon he was talking up Anju’s medal chances. France’s Eunice Barber and Russia’s Tatyana Kotova were the ones she had to watch out for with American Jade Johnson and Italy’s defending champion Fiona May strong contenders as well.
“On the day of the qualification round, Bobby told me you need to reach the final, that is the first step. After all, we have trained so hard. Once I reached the final, he started talking about the medal. I had gained a lot of confidence by then and started believing that I would win a medal,” she says.
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August 30, 2003 — Women’s Long Jump Final
After the first round, Anju was leading the field but by the fourth had slipped to provisional fourth place. “My third jump was huge one, perhaps a 7-metre jump but after first raising the white flag, the official showed a red one. I had overstepped by one millimetre.”
The fourth attempt came amidst high drama. May, the Italian, could not find her check mark (kept at points alongside the runway to help an athlete get steps right). “I remember she was furious and upset. I was to jump next. When I looked, my check mark was also missing. Maybe someone moved it. Luckily, just as a precaution, I had left a wet towel a little away to mark the point where I would begin my run-up. So I relied on the towel and had to do a little guesswork.”
A distance of 6.56 metres in the fourth jump meant Anju had to claw her way back into a medal position in the next attempt, else going all out in the sixth and final jump would put her under immense pressure. She almost made a mess of it.
“Before the fifth, I prayed to all the gods. Yet one of my spikes hit the knee on my other leg. I lost momentum and had just four strides to regain it. I didn’t get a take-off and it was a flat jump, but I gave it my all. And I got 6.70 metres. I didn’t know how much I had jumped.”
Anju was in third position with one round to go. As things panned out, Johnson who was capable of knocking off Anju from the podium managed just 6.53m in the final round and could not improve on her 6.63m. Barber and Kotova took the top two spots.
“The medal ceremony was the next day and it was a proud feeling to have won India’s only medal at the World Championships till date. Those day there weren’t too many cell phones so the landline in my room would not stop ringing. Officials from the Indian embassy handed me a congratulatory message from the President of India. An Indian flag was hoisted in our part of the athletes’ village.”
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Following a medal at the previous year’s Asian Games and Commonwealth Games, the husband-wife pair decided they needed to go to the best to make an impact at the world level. They turned to Powell, who coached at the Fullerton University in California. They contacted him through Robert’s brother and some friends, and he agreed to work with Anju. The first step was getting an ‘ok’ from the sports ministry for travel and funds. Robert and Anju went to Delhi and stayed put for the whole of March before the foreign training stint was cleared. The two were upbeat until they saw the training centre at the university after travelling halfway across the globe.
“I first thought it was some basic facility which we first saw and there would be a better runway and pit. But I was disappointed when Powell told us that this was it. When we left for America, I thought it would be like a ‘dreamworld’. But the facility was so small and basic. The track was not thick and the spikes would wear off fast. On one side, towards the left, the pit was slanting. Anyway, Bobby said ‘we have come this far, let us continue here’.”
The one month with Powell did wonders to Anju’s technique. First, she had to adjust to the new training schedule. In India, she was used to two training sessions, one in the morning and another in the evening. Under Powell it was one long one – 10 am to 4 pm – with nothing to eat in between except some protein shakes to gulp down. The only source of shade was a lamp post near the jumping pit.
Powell’s dedication as coach, however, impressed both Anju and Robert. “He was with us all the time. He would be on the track and would correct the technique. At his age (he was almost 40), he still had great pace. But I would try my best to match up. He helped me when it came to speed and approach variations. Bobby’s training system was the same as it was in the USA and was similar to what the best athletes followed, but the Americans are always a step ahead when it comes to technique. Back then sitting in India, it was not easy to stay up to date with the advances in technique. I changed my approached from 34 metres to 41.”
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Anju remembers how she would be exhausted after the day’s work. But there was cooking to do too as there was no help like one gets in India. “Boiled chicken and fish as I had to take a lot of protein. Very little rice,” she says.
For weight training, Anju had to travel 50 miles as the university didn’t have all facilities under one roof. “The good thing was Powell used to drive us and drop us back.”
Anju and Bobby trained their minds to be sponge-like, listening to every word Powell said. They had just one month in California and didn’t want to waste a single day. Powell introduced Anju to a top sports management firm Hudson-Smith International. It paved the way for Anju to compete on the European Grand Prix circuit. Everything seemed on track, till Berlin, when her body let her down and she gave up at the end of her event. Before Robert helped her chart a glorious comeback in less than three weeks.
“After I won the bronze in Paris, Powell asked Bobby: ‘What kind of magic did you do?’ He said jokingly, ‘So far we paid you to coach Anju, now you pay me and I will tell you’.”
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