Her love for jumps officially began at the age of 5 when she was in the first standard at Lizu School, in Changanassery, central Kerala. But ace jumper Anju George's mother Gracy says she sensed her daughter's sporting spirit even during pregnancy.
"She used to jump and kick me [so much] when I was pregnant that I thought funnily that the child would one day become a sportsperson," recalled Gracy, who is still overcome by the joy of her daughter's wonderful performance at Paris.
When Anju made history last Saturday by becoming the first Indian ever to win a medal at the World Athletics Championships, Gracy went to the local church and prayed. "I have been regularly going to church and praying for my daughter's victory. The Lord has rewarded my prayers," she said.
Born to sports-loving parents Gracy and K T Markose, Anju, 25, has suddenly become an icon of success for the young generation. When his daughter's rare feat became news, Markose was away in New Delhi to receive the Arjuna Award that the Indian government had gifted Anju last week.
Since her school days, Anju's life has been a tale of victory. Antony Kurien, a textile shop owner who happened to study in the same C K Kesavan Memorial High School as Anju, recalls that the school authorities had spotted her athletic talent. "I remember the school preparing a special schedule for her so that she could practise jumps, throws and runs after the class hours," Kurien said.
At the high school, the legendary Thomas Master, one of Kerala's best athletics coaches, groomed Anju. The high school under Thomas Master won first place at athletics meets for 13 years in succession. And Anju was always there, making the school proud by winning most of the long jump and triple jump competitions she participated in.
Gracy says that during her school and college days at Vimla College in Thrissur, Anju bagged so many medals that they did not have the space to display them in the house. A few years ago, Anju was selected for a posting with the customs department in Chennai. Since then she has been a regular at national coaching sessions.
In the last few years till her marriage on April 24, 2000, Anju was practising under T P Ouseph, a well-known long jump coach.
The turning point in her life and sporting career came when she married Bobby George, youngest brother of famed volleyball player and former India captain the late Jimmy George. Bobby, himself a triple jump national champion, was also working with the customs in Chennai. "I knew my daughter-in-law would achieve this great feat one day. We are all so thrilled and happy," said father-in-law George Joseph.
Joseph, an advocate, lives in Peravoor, some 50 kilometres from the north Kerala town of Kannur, and has been a sports lover all his life. It was volleyball that he loved most. So when his seven sons began to grow up, he did one of the best things to happen in India's sporting history: he constructed a volleyball court and trained his sons in the sport.
All his sons became good volleyball players; but it was Jimmy George who achieved the pinnacle of glory internationally. But Jimmy's death in a car accident in Europe in the late 1980s shattered the family.
"Life has been very cruel to be me," Joseph said. "The death of my son was a huge emotional loss. My sons have always made me proud with their sporting talents. I am now happy that my daughter-in-law has done a brilliant performance that is the best ever in the history of India athletics."
After his marriage, says Joseph, Bobby's greatest ambition has been to ensure that Anju wins an Olympics medal. "Bobby and all of us family members immensely supported Anju. And now she has performed brilliantly," the proud father pointed out.
Since their marriage, Bobby took over as Anju's coach, training, supporting and taking her to foreign shores for international exposure. The results soon begun to show. Last year Anju became the first Indian woman to win a long jump medal at the Commonwealth Games at Manchester. Then she went a step further by winning a gold at the Busan Asian Games.
As she set her sights on higher glory last year, two interesting and crucial things happened: Anju bid goodbye to the triple jump after leaping to a new distance of 13.67 metres at the National Games in Hyderabad in December last year. "I am retiring from the triple jump to concentrate on sprints in order improve my long jump performance," she had then declared.
Then, in June this year, Anju and Bobby left for California to get trained under long jump world record holder Mike Powell.
Bobby and Anju agree that the training programme in the US under Powell polished the rough edges of her long jumps. "It was her consistent training sessions with Powell that has helped her achieve this unique victory. I am now confident that Anju will bring a gold medal for India next year," Joseph said.
In the days to come, Anju will have to do better than the 6.70m jump that gave her the bronze in Paris. But sports watchers believe she will do it at Athens. "I am sure in the days to come she will do us all proud," the former 'sprint queen' P T Usha, India's most famous athlete, said. "I see in Anju an Olympic medal."
Needless to say, Usha, who was also a long jumper early in her career, is one of Anju's admirers. "It was a wonderful performance from Anju," she said. "I have known her for many years now. I knew that Anju would create this record one day. I am now confident that she will win an Olympic medal too."
While family members eagerly await Anju and Bobby's return, Anju still has a busy schedule ahead of her. She will now participate in the Grand Prix athletics finale at Monaco, the Asian Track and Field at Manila, the Philippines, on September 23 and 24, and the Afro-Asian Games in Hyderabad in October.
Then she will set her sights on the Olympic gold at Athens next year. Till then, Anju's mother Gracy says she will offer prayers daily at the local church.