At 17, long jumper Shaili Singh is one of the younger participants at the ongoing seniors’ Inter-State meet in Patiala. Naturally, she was nervous about catching up with the senior competitors in her event. In the very first jump, however, Shaili conquered the nerves with a leap of 6.19m, rewriting a 21-year-old youth national mark. The athlete from Jhansi wasn’t done yet. In the next jump, she broke the Under-20 national record with a distance of 6.38m, and bettered it with an impressive 6.48 in her final attempt.
Coach Robert Bobby George — who helped Anju Bobby George to India’s lone senior athletics Worlds medal in 2003 — doesn’t hold back in heaping praises on Shaili, whom he had spotted at a junior meet in 2017.
“She will definitely overtake Anju and rule the Asian circuit,” says Robert. “After a gap of 13 years, I am working with a national champion again. She has incredible speed and a great spirit. I haven’t seen anyone as talented as her on the Indian circuit in the last 25 years.”
Raised by a single mother who worked as a tailor, Shaili recalls how the family did not have enough resources to afford even three square meals. Spikes, then, were a distant dream when she took up athletics in school.
“Forget spikes, we could not even afford a pair of normal running shoes. I saw the boys in my school competing in races and thought ‘if they can, why can’t I’? I started running barefoot and would often return home with blisters on my feet. My mother would weep at the sight,” Shaili told The Indian Express.
After being spotted by Robbert in 2017, Shaili was roped into the junior national camp in Bengaluru the following year. Shaili now resides and trains under Robert at their academy in Bengaluru. Moving to Bengaluru from Varanasi was a smooth transition for Shaili. She, along with 12 other junior athletes, live in a house just across the road from Anju’s.
“We play a lot with Aaron and Andrea (Robert and Anju’s children). I love staying in Bengaluru and training under sir. Whenever I go home for a short break, I start missing the academy. I feel more at home there,” says the athlete who is now supported by SAI and Olympic Gold Quest.
Shaili, a strict vegetarian until she joined the academy, has transformed into a “pure non-vegetarian” now. “I started with chicken and loved it. And then I started trying different kinds of meats. Now I don’t even feel like eating veggies,” she says with a bright smile.
Shaili’s mother had to give up her tailoring job about a year back due to incessant migraine. The family is now reliant on Shaili’s stipend and scholarship. Shaili’s mother is also her biggest supporter. Since the events at the Punjabi University were not live-streamed, Shaili’s mother had to wait — not too long though — for a call from her to update the day’s results.
“She had asked me to tell her the results the moment my event got over, and I did so. She was overjoyed when I told her that I beat all the didis (elder sisters) and broke the U-20 national record,” says Shaili.
Robert has high hopes from her ward but wants to ensure that she doesn’t burn out before reaching her true potential. “At this moment I want her natural talent to come out. She has a long way to go. She needs to be nurtured. She will definitely break Anju’s national record but don’t worry my 7-year-old daughter Andrea is a natural athlete too, she will eventually overcome Shaili, ” Robert laughs.
Shaili too knows that she has a long journey to make. She has made a little list of things she would like to do for her mother when she becomes an accomplished athlete.
“We live in a rented house and I want to get a home of our own for mum. I want to buy her car too someday. She’s never sat on an aeroplane, I want to fly her once at least,” says Shaili.