Anju Bobby George, one of India’s best athletes ever, talked to me about her achievements and her life as a coach. A confident young woman, she believes that she must give back to her country and works in association with several organisations in India. She also advises young athletes to work hard and talks to us about being a mother.
I’m Still An Athlete At Heart
Anju George initially had trouble adjusting to the lockdown measures. She told me how she spent most days in the lockdown. She initially found it challenging because she was used to being on the ground all day exercising or training. She says, “We struggled a lot. When we found out that the lockdown would be extended, we had to adjust to the situation.”
Anju and Bobby George soon started online classes for the girls they coach at the Anju Bobby George Foundation. The pair found that coaching online is not what they expected. With most of their students stuck at home, they spend their time coaching and conducting exams.
“For the last four months, I haven’t stepped out of my house. We’re not scared of this thing, but the fact is we don’t know how it will affect our body.”
Anju and her husband Bobby George run the Anju Bobby George Foundation, in Bangalore. She explained that her life as a coach is quite different from her life as an athlete. However, Anju George still believes that she is an athlete more than a coach.
“I don’t like being a coach because my mind and my body are still on that runway. I want to jump. I’m still stuck in that world.”Says Anju George
The Anju Bobby George Foundation is unique in its own way. It’s probably the only one that’s run by a world achiever and their coach. The Foundation trains 13 young girls from all over the country. And they have started right where Anju George stopped. It’s much easier for the pair to guide these girls because they have already come a long way. Of their young athletes, Shaili Singh is World No. 2 in her age category. She is being prepared for the 2024 Olympics. Anju George regrets not starting her athletic career sooner but is glad that these girls get to do so.
As their coach, Anju George looks forward to one of her girls winning an Olympic medal. “That’s the only thing that I did not achieve in my career,” she says, “As long as one of my girls wins it, I think it’s also my achievement.”
I asked her about the difficulties of training these girls online. They train on their rooftops while filming themselves and forwarding the videos through Whatsapp to Bobby George, who then corrects them and monitors their diet. While they are getting used to the circumstances, they still face a few issues. The coaches need to ensure that the girls have a proper intake of protein-rich food. Since some of the girls are from a poor background, she also has to extend financial support.
“My only worry is that this was the golden time to teach them the correct technique. But they’re young; we still have time.”
While there are many promising wards from the Foundation, Anju George says that she isn’t projecting them yet. She continued, “Even Shaili, she’s just 16. We’re just teaching her the correct methods, but we’re not preparing her for a World Championship performance.”
“My achievement will be recorded in Indian history, and nobody can erase it.”Says Anju George
Anju George also believes that it is worth spending time and effort to win a medal for the country. She spent most of her childhood on the ground training and spent very little time with her family and friends, and reminisces about how lucky she was.
“What we desire the most in our lives is satisfaction. So if you’re good at something, you have to achieve your best, and you have to fight till the end. Only then can you call yourself a winner.”
Anju George still finds winning the World Championship medal her greatest achievement. In 2003, she secured a bronze medal at the Championship held in Paris. She told me that she had always dreamed of a huge success but never believed she would ever achieve it. She is currently the first and only Indian to win a medal at the World Athletics Championship. “I did win a World Athletic Final gold medal again in 2005, but the first one is always close to the heart.”
Apart from the World Championship, Anju George has also won a bronze medal in the 2002 Commonwealth Games, a gold medal in the 2005 IAAF World Athletics Final, and a gold and silver medal at the 2005 and 2007 Asian Championships respectively. Each time she won a medal, India celebrated. This gave her the extra push she needed to win more medals, and she indeed worked hard to meet those expectations.
We then talked about the success of female athletes from Kerala. The state has produced some of the best female athletes in the country including – but not limited to – PT Usha, Tintu Lukka, Shiny Abraham, and KM Beenamol. According to her, female athletes, in the early 2000s, were struggling because they did not get enough support from their families or from the government. Kerala, however, witnessed great support from the government’s side. Although the scenario’s changing and there are many athletes from north India now, she agrees that some of the best Indian athletes are from Kerala.
“When India would win something, it would be the headliners on the front pages of our newspapers, and we would even celebrate these achievements in our school. We were always encouraged to compete.”
When I asked her about her biggest inspiration, someone she compared herself to, she told me that she looked up to herself. She was confident of the inner fire within herself. “I knew that I could stand with the top athletes, and I wouldn’t back down.” Her coach, Bobby George, was also her constant support. He motivated her when she was ill or injured and boosted her onto the world podium.
“I did look up to others when I was younger, but I found out that they dealt unprofessionally. So I asked myself, why worship someone who’s not that great? Why not look up to myself?”
I asked Anju George about her role in inspiring young athletes, many of those that look up to her. Anju George believes she has a huge role to play in inspiring the future generation of female athletes. After retiring from her athletic career, she started supporting the sport and actively unearthing new talent from all over India. She says, “It’s my job. I have to help them because I’m here because of them and because of sports. And I want to give something back to my country and to my sport-oriented family.”
Anju George now works in association with the Sports Authority of India, the Indian Olympic Association, and the Athletics Federation of India (AFI). She is also the Athlete’s Commission’s Chairperson. Because she holds these top-level positions, she can reach out to all the athletes and provide support when they face problems.
She also talked briefly about her father, K.T. Markose, who introduced her to athletics, which further blossomed during her school days. She thinks about how her life would have been entirely different had he not done so: “If I hadn’t gotten the chance to become an athlete, I would have ended up as an ordinary housewife.” A highly energetic and ambitious woman, Anju George says she wouldn’t have successfully adjusted to that kind of life.
One of her favourite memories of her athletic career was travelling the world. However, due to her strict schedule, she could not explore these destinations. While she did enjoy travelling around the world, she regrets not getting the chance to see anything.
“I spent almost two months training near the Eiffel Tower, but I never got a chance to visit it. I was in America, but I never got to visit Disneyland.”
The Best Coach
Anju considers her husband and coach Bobby, her luckiest bet. Robert George was the youngest coach at the World Championship. Bobby, a former National Triple Jump Champion, is also the youngest (34) recipient of the Dronacharya Award (2003). He is also from a famous sporting family, where almost every member is involved in sports. This family still carries the legacy of Jimmy George, the first professional volleyball player from India.
“When he told me that I was going to win the medal, it gave me confidence. Even I felt like I was going to win.”Says Anju about Bobby George
When she first started training with Bobby George, she didn’t believe in her capabilities, but her coach did. She also believes that athletics is a science and that understanding the scientific process behind sports is essential in improving technique. Bobby’s engineering background, along with his vision, made this easier. Although India did not have much exposure to the techniques practiced around the world, Bobby George was very up-to-date. Anju George visualizes him as a one-man army – he was her coach, her doctor, her travel agent, and her manager. Unlike many athletes, she did not have to worry about all these things because Bobby handled them all.
Anju George also talked about her training with Mike Powell, the world long jump record holder. While Mike did not make any changes to the practice sessions, he did make a few technical corrections. I asked her about how different the experience was from just training with Bobby George. In a career like sports, where the methods and techniques are always changing, it was challenging to stay updated. Under Mike’s guidance, she changed her running technique and also extended the long jump approach distance further. Apart from the training, they also made changes to her diet according to the training pattern.
“I got an excellent opportunity to compete with a top-level athlete. I also found a great manager in him.”
I also wanted to know more about the most significant challenges she faced when it came to competing at national and international competitions. According to her, the biggest challenge she faced was to reproduce her best jumps. She says, “I used to do 7m+ jumps many times during my training in India. But I never got the opportunity to reproduce the same thing in international competitions.” There were numerous complications when it came to international competitions – it would either be declared a foul or she would fall far behind the board. Fortunately for Anju George, she always performed her year’s best in a competition even if it wasn’t her personal best. However, it is the coach’s task to shape and prepare athletes, and Anju George believes that 90% of the time, she performed her best.
Tea With the Government
I also asked Anju George about the government’s involvement in sports. I was interested to know her opinions on how the government actively supported sports in India and if they should do more. She told me that in India, government support is far better than in most other countries like the USA or the European countries.
“In our country, if you’re capable enough, you will get full support from the Ministry and even help with the necessary infrastructure.”
Anju George does clarify that the Indian government cannot possibly support the entire list of Indian athletes or the sports facilities all over India. However, she feels that the younger generation is much luckier because they get private support. “If you get a medal in the World Championships or Olympics or Asian level meets, private support will come to you – a lot of endorsements and support.” She does not expect the government to support the entire system. Having spent only 14 lakh rupees for her World Championship medal, she does not think it is right to blame the country or the system for funds. She also brought to attention the fact that the government is now reaching out at the grassroots level to build a system favourable to new talent.
Last year, in 2019, the government donated 5 crores to the Anju Bobby George Foundation for the construction of a new synthetic track. With the government support capped at 5 crores, the Foundation is now looking for private support. The work is still pending because of the current situation. The Foundation is also expecting a hike in prices because of the corona situation. While they do need more money, they’re trying to manage with what they have.
She also found that India’s exposure to international competitions has changed. Back in the early 2000s, India did not have much exposure to top-level competitions. Indians hardly ever got the chance to witness these events live. “Most Indian athletes were not even ready to compete in the Grand Prix season. They were satisfied with National championships.” Anju George, however, proved different. She was a familiar face in the Grand Prix competitions and competed with top athletes in top tournaments. She said that even though athletes are getting enough support now, most of them are not willing to go up to the Grand Prix competitions and blame the system instead.
I also asked Anju George why India struggled to win in top-level competitions like the Olympics despite our large population. She considers athletics one of the toughest events in the Olympics. Unlike other sports categories, athletes compete with roughly 210 countries at a time.
She also mentions how her ill health was the reason behind the poor performance at the 2004 Olympics, held in Athens. To the disappointment of sports-enthusiasts across India, Anju George did not secure a medal as was anticipated and instead finished 6th. “We are human beings, not machines. We can’t predict how our body will react.” She argues that even if athletes prepared their bodies to perform their best, a minor inconvenience like pain or a slight fever would impair the performance. She still anticipates for the maiden medal from the Olympics and believes that it’ll come soon.
Any advice for young athletes?
Anju: “Your achievements are yours. But you need to train a lot; they won’t happen out of anywhere. You’ll have to spend hours under the sun, and you’ll get injured, but you need to keep up the drive till the very end. And don’t go for any shortcuts. That may work out for you in the short-term, but you have a life beyond your sporting career. Work hard, and it will pay in the end.”
Anju George ended the interview by telling us that being a mother is harder than being an athlete or a coach because of the pressures of raising her children right. She says that it’s a lot easier to correct the techniques when it comes to training or coaching. “It’s a very tough task being a mother, and no one teaches you how to do it.” She finds that every day is a new learning process because as kids grow up, their needs keep differing, their food habits keep changing, and hormones start kicking in. When it comes to her daughter, she is in familiar territory, but raising her son is a completely different experience. “It’s a fun but risky affair. But it’s worth the time and effort to invest in children.”