The Rediff Interview / Anju George
'To win a medal in your first major meet
is an achievement'
When 24-year-old Anju George covered a distance of 6.49 metres in her final attempt in the women's long jump at the 17th Commonwealth Games, in Manchester, she was sure she would win the bronze medal in the event. And she did, and became the first woman athlete from India to win a medal at the quadrennial Games.
Anju is the fifth athlete from India to win a Commonwealth athletics medal. In 1958, Milkha Singh won a gold in the 400 metres; in 1966, Praveen Kumar won a silver in the hammer throw; Mohinder Singh Gill won a bronze in 1970, and silver in 1974 in the triple jump; and Suresh Babu won a bronze in the long jump in 1978. Anju's win has come after 24 years.
I had met the Kerala-born Tamil Nadu-based athlete two years ago at Shiny Wilson's house in Chennai. The Sydney Olympics were on and I was at Shiny's place to talk to her about her Olympics experiences. As I waited for Shiny to return from her office, a lanky young lady came in, said hello to me and started watching a Malayalam film on television. What I noticed was her very, very long legs. I didn't know who she was. Later on, she told me she would have been at Sydney had she not suffered an ankle injury during the Olympics trials in Nagercoil. She looked very dejected and disappointed when we started talking about the Olympics. "You know, I also might have been there," she said.
That disappointment is now forgotten and it is time for Anju rejoice and celebrate, though she is busy practising for the forthcoming Asian Games under the strict regimen of her husband-coach Bobby George.
It was only after 9.30 at night that I could catch up with Anju -- because she was training till nine -- to find out more about her bronze medal success.
What was on your mind when you were going to Manchester?
To tell you the truth, I had the desire to come back with a medal.
Were you hopeful of winning a medal? Even P T Usha did not win one at the Commonwealth Games...
Yes, I was hopeful, because I was performing quite well on the domestic circuit. I had even cleared more than what the gold medallist [Elva Goulbourne of Jamaica] did at the Games. Even the day before I departed, I did very well. So, I expected to win a medal.
How was it like performing in front of such a huge crowd there?
It was amazing. The crowd was supporting all the athletes, irrespective of the country they belonged to. The moment you started running, they would start clapping and shouting. It was quite distracting for me initially, because I am not used to such huge crowds. Here, we generally perform with no one watching us. I found it difficult to concentrate as I had no experience running in with a huge crowd shouting for you. If you get used to such an atmosphere, it can act as a big motivating force.
Just before your last jump, you were in sixth position; but after the last jump of 6.49 metres, you shot up to third position. Were you excited then? There were many more to jump after you...
Not exactly. One reason was, 6.49 metres was not a good jump even according my standards. I had cleared 6.60 metres several times during the practice sessions. So, 6.49 is not a commendable jump if you look at my career. But it made me happy only because I won a medal.
Another reason why I was not excited after the 6.49 metres jump was, like you said, there were many people to jump after me. And, mind you, all of them were Olympic and world champions. Still, I was confident of winning a bronze. It was mainly because they had not done better in their earlier jumps. Somehow, I knew they would not cover more than 6.49 in their last attempt too! I told myself that I had won a bronze.
When they announced your name, were you thrilled?
Of course! India was getting an athletics medal after a gap of many years. Above all, it was my first major international meet, and to win a medal in your first major international meet is an achievement; isn’t it? So, I was very, very happy.
Did you celebrate?
No, I didn't celebrate. I was waiting to come home to be with my husband and family.
Did you miss him there?
Yes, a lot.
Did your husband become the coach or the coach became the husband?
Coach became my husband. In fact… [laughs] our affair started even before he became my coach! I was practising alone, and Bobby also was practising alone. Then we started practising together. Later, we decided to marry and live together!
After marriage, he became my coach and I trained under him in the national camp.
You dedicated the medal to your husband. Was it because he is your coach or because he is the force behind your success?
Without Bobby’s help, I would not have achieved anything. He is the motivating force.
Your father said on television you are a very lazy person, and only after you got married to Bobby you train regularly, and that also only because he makes you train hard...
Did my father say that? [laughs] How true he is! I am basically a very lazy and a careless person. It is only because of Bobby that I am doing something now. He pushes me to work hard. When I was young, it was my father who used to take me to competitions, and push me to work hard. I used to sleep as we waited for the arrival of the coach! What Bobby is doing now, Papa used to do then!
How does Bobby motivate you?
He tells me, 'You have so much talent; you should not let it go waste. There are many people with less talent than you but they work so hard to achieve something. Here you are with so much talent but lazy. You are defying God. You shouldn’t do this.' When he talks like this, I find it difficult to sit at home and laze around.
Does he have to give such pep talk daily?
Yes, [laughs] daily. Without his pep talk, I will not even get up. I would either be sitting in front of the television or sleeping! It may be time to go for practice but if there is a movie on television, I just sit there and watch it. He has to literally drag me to the stadium! [laughs]
Now that you have won a medal at the Commonwealth Games, will there be any difference?
I am basically a lazy person! I really do not know whether I will change; I think I will have to.
You said you had cleared more than 6.60 metres several times in India. Why couldn't you repeat that at Manchester? Was it the climate that bothered you?
My first trial jump was above 6.80 metres. Usually, my first two jumps are the best ones. But there [Manchester], I did the first jump from behind the board and it was okay; but I fouled on my second jump. What happened after that was a long delay of several hours. There were four victory ceremonies, and the system there was that they would not continue with the event while the ceremony was going on. Then, there were some finals too. So they just stopped our event in between. You won't believe, we had to wait for nearly five hours to complete our event! It was so cold there, and the climate made all of us so stiff. All the contestants were very angry; even the experienced athletes were heard complaining that they had never experienced anything like that. As it was my first experience, I had no idea about the proceedings. I just stood there, but I was pretty cool, while all the others were extremely angry.
That is the reason why all of them performed below par. Otherwise, I am sure the distance would have been much, much better.
You do both, the triple jump and long jump. Are you planning to train in both?
I am concentrating only on the long jump. The triple jump is quite risky and the chances of getting injured are more. I compete in triple jump only in events where I would win a medal easily. I also don't practice much for the triple jump. I may practice for a week or two, that too just before the event. Nothing more that.
This season has been excellent for you. You have been performing very well. Did you change your training pattern or is it because of something else? You couldn't go to the Olympics because of an ankle injury you sustained at the trials...
That was when you saw me at Shiny chechi's place. Yes, after the ankle injury, I had been continuously haunted by some injury or the other. See, when you have an injury in one place, you tend to be careful about that and then give pressure on some other place, and that results in the other area getting injured. This continued for a year. If I practised for a week, I had to take rest for two weeks. After one competition, I had to take rest for a very long period. So, I could never finish a season well.
But this year, we took care of the injury by taking treatment at Karanthur [in Kerala] at Chandran Kurukal's place. After the treatment, my ankle is okay. That was the only reason I could practice the whole season without any interruption. When you are practising well, your results also tend to get better.
You said you are a lazy person. Do you have any goals or ambition in life now? For example, for the Asian Games?
After hearing Bobby talk so much, it has started coming to me! Earlier, nobody knew me. Now, people know me and they expect me to perform well. Not only in India, but outside also I am known now with this one medal. So, I will have to be careful.
India has performed extremely well in the Commonwealth Games. What do you think are the reasons for such a good show?
Unlike the past, we get a lot of exposure these days. Earlier, athletes were only participating in the events that took place in India, and there were not many except a couple of national meets. It is not so now. There are so many circuit meets. For example, just before I went to Manchester, I had participated in seven competitive meets. We are given chance to compete with world-class athletes. That gives us a lot of confidence and experience. The Sports Ministry and Suresh Kalmadi [Indian Olympic Association and Amateur Athletics Federation if India president] have been taking a lot of interest in all these things and doing a lot for us. The experience that the sports persons have gained from exposure is showing now.
The Tamil Nadu chief minister gave you Rs. 10 lakhs [one million]. What are you planning to do with the money?
I don't know. Bobby will decide all that! [laughs]
Design: Uday Kuckian
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