It is not easy to sit back at home and watch an Olympic Games when you know you could have been there yourself competing with the world’s best. That’s the pain Anju had to endure between 1997 and 2000. Time and again, just when she seemed to be running into form, she would be pulled down by an injury. She was a fair bet for the squad for the 1998 Asian Games in Bangkok. But injury struck. In 1999, after her silver medal in the South Asian Federation meet, the story repeated itself and she was forced to sit at home and watch the Olympics on TV. She admits there were times when she got so frustrated that she wanted to give up athletics and get on with her life.
But fortunately, in Bobby George, then only a friend from the national camps, she had a great source of inspiration and a motivator par excellence. A national triple jump champion, Bobby is also a qualified engineer. The friendship cemented into a closer, more meaningful relationship: the two got married in 2001. That was also the year of her comeback—she touched a career-best 6.74 m. Everyone sat up and took notice. It was a distance that could have got her into the finals at the Sydney Olympics, she would have got a sixth place with the leap. At the 1998 Asian Games, which too she missed, the winner was China’s Guan Yingnan with 6.89 m—a distance within Anju’s reach. At the 2001 Asian Track and Field meet in Jakarta, Kyrgyzstan’s Yelena Bobrovskaya won the long jump with 6.66 m.
Once in the 6.5-6.6 m zone, it was clear Anju was capable of striking a medal at any international meet, for a good jump could take you beyond 6.7 m and then anything can happen.
There was a time women long jumpers were routinely flying in the 7.2 m plus zone. The world record of 7.52 m was set way back in 1988 by Galina Chistyakova of Russia. But in the last five to six years, partly due to a severe crackdown on doping, distances have come down to anything between 6.8 to 7.1 m. The winner at the Paris World Championships, Frenchwoman Eunice Barber, touched 6.99 m, while second placed Tatyana Kotova of Russia cleared 6.84 m as against Anju’s 6.7 m, which got her the bronze, the first Indian athlete to win a medal at the World Championships.
This was a stunning achievement. For it should be kept in mind that her 6.74 m leap was achieved in India. Numerous Indian athletes have left for major internationals on the strength of ‘big’ performances at home and then floundered. Anju, like her Kerala predecessors P.T. Usha and Shiny Wilson, didn’t. In August last year at Manchester, she became the first Indian woman to strike an athletics medal at the Commonwealth Games. Lying outside the medal bracket with just a jump to go, Anju leapt to 6.49 m for a bronze. Not even Usha or Shiny had ever won a Commonwealth medal.
Anju, who loves watching Malayalam films on TV, considers herself somewhat lazy. In Bobby, she found a great motivator who would keep pushing her and telling her she had incredible talent and that she was wasting it all. In the last couple of years, the focus also sharpened—Anju and Bobby decided she would give up the triple jump because it could lead to injuries, and concentrate solely on long jump. Former national long jump coach T.P. Ouseph, who trained Anju in her early years, admits that Bobby has been a big factor in Anju’s success. "Being a mechanical engineer with his own triple jump experience, he has brought about a fresh scientific approach to coaching," he says. "Bobby takes a lot of pain to read and try out modern techniques."
After Manchester came her gold at the Busan Asian Games. And even as accolades poured in, the husband-wife team decided to train their sights on the World Championships and the ultimate goal, the Athens Olympics, 2004. But Bobby realised the next push needed to come from someone even better than him. The search for a world-class coach began. Through his brother, who had friends in the US, Bobby got through to Mike Powell, who had set the world record of 8.95 m in 1991. Powell, now a Professor in Physical Education in California, was immediately impressed by Anju. An American sports management company, too, got interested—it took her in its world-class stable, which includes the likes of Maurice Greene, Allen Johnson and Jon Drummond. It ensured her entry into top-notch meets like the Grand Prix in Europe, and she finished in the top six in three of the four championships she competed in.
With right weight training in the off-season, Anju’s strength has increased and that, coupled with speed, gives her the perfect launch. If she could gain some more height in her jumps, she could come close to 7 m and maybe even go beyond. Another approach Bobby has instilled in her is to try for the big one right at the start. The body is at its best in the first two jumps. Many of her big leaps have come in the first two. Once she has a big number against her name, she derives confidence to go further. The International Amateur Athletic Federation is also toying with plans to cut down the number of attempts in long jump from six to four, which should be to Anju’s advantage. With improved speed-training, which may include a go at domestic sprint events, she can convert the speed of her run-up into the take-off. The key is to ensure the speed does not slacken in the last three strides—that’s the area Powell is working on.
Now, with Busan, Manchester and Paris behind her, all that remains is an Olympic triumph. Nothing would be more fitting than the sight of her filling this breach when the grandest of events returns to its old home, Athens, next year. But right now, she is focusing on the Grand Prix finals in Monaco, which is limited to the top seven in the world. Currently Anju is No. 6. But in her heart of hearts, she knows the number she wants: it’s No. 1.