Shaili Singh meteoric rise in Indian athletics has brought the focus back on women's long jump that earlier seemed lost after Anju Bobby George's retirement close to a decade ago. While the 44-year-old national record holder, who is India's lone World Championship medallist to this day, has already professed that it's a matter of time before the 17-year-old wunderkind breaks her national record of 6.83 metres, it is hard to ignore how there's so much in common in both the former and current athletes, beginning with coach Robert Bobby George.
Returning to the Indian athletics fold after a hiatus of half a decade, Robert -- who trained his wife Anju from the age of 21 and eventually led her to the 2003 World Championships bronze medal and 2005 World Athletics final gold medal -- couldn't have asked for a better restart. After all, his new protege Shaili made the athletics world take notice of her with a silver medal at the recently-concluded World U-20 Championships in Nairobi.
So now with two high-profile athletes attached to his name, will it be right to call Robert a long and triple jump whisperer? The 50-plus coach firmly disagrees.
"I am not a qualified coach but basically an engineer (College of Engineering, Trivandrum, 1991 batch) who has a passion for athletics," Robert tells Indiatvnews.com. "I was an athlete myself (former triple jump national champion) so I can understand the horizontal jump events better, and my mechanical engineering knowledge also helps me understand biomechanics, so that comes handy as well."
However, when one looks at how a young Shaili was identified at a national tournament back in 2017 through an ongoing grassroots programme -- which began in 2015 jointly by Anju Bobby George Sports Foundation, Sports Authority of India and Athletics Federation of India -- it's hard not to admire how the coach was keen on finding and nurturing handpicked talents.
"The idea of the programme was to handpick young athletes performing at junior national events all over India and bring them to SAI Bengaluru for training through their formative years in an over six-year programme. At junior national events, Anju and I were not looking for trained athletes but untrained ones with physical traits, speed and characteristics like self-motivation among others," says the coach, who is contracted by SAI for the programme.
Apart from Shaili, the all-girl programme, over its two batches, so far has identified 12 other jumpers including talents like Deepanshi Singh and Aishi Biswas.
To further understand why the programme has bear fruit so early is down to the coach himself, who instead of chasing a national or a world record has focussed his attention on the process of nurturing his jumpers.
"See it's a character-building process of athletes and not just training alone. Just training is for animals!" he quipped. "Physical, psychological, social and emotional are all part of the character-building process. All that is part of our six-and-a-half-year training programme. At the moment someone like Shaili is halfway through the programme and in three years time she will be a fully matured athlete, who won't even be requiring my guidance anymore.
"We can't stress athletes to chase numbers because it will bring psychological pressure and risk injuries as well. The idea is to think long term and that's why we aim to see someone like Shaili as champion for three Olympics."
But with someone like Shaili needing more individual attention in coming years, is Robert fully-equipped to train his wonder girl and other developmental athletes at the same time? The situation worries the gaffer as well.
"That has been an issue. Even now I am running two to three different programmes every day for a batch of six each but I don't know how far I can go like this. I already need resources and funds to run this programme effectively but I got no sponsor at the moment," says Robert.
Anju and Robert, along with SAI, have already been working on a world-class infrastructure project -- an extension of the National Centre of Excellence -- for jumpers near Kengeri (Bengaluru). For the time being the duo has been allowed to run their programme at the SAI Kengeri by the sports authority, who also has been the sole funder of the programme so far but feels further success is not possible without interest from the private sector.
"The upcoming infrastructure is an NCOE extension similar to what Gopichand Academy has for badminton and PT Usha academy for runners but we are struggling with the fund as we need them through CSR or sponsorship.
"See, I don't want to create just a Shaili. I nurtured a champion like Anju 10 years ago... now Shaili and in future, there will be more champions, we have to show trust in the programme," Robert concludes.