In Paris for a leisure trip, little did the Indian long jump ace know that coach Bobby George was helping her prepare for the best test of her life.
Though her best at the Olympic Games was a fifth-place finish at Athens 2004, Anju Bobby George holds the distinction of being the only Indian to win a medal at the World Athletics Championships, a competition as fierce as the Olympics.
It was at the 2003 edition in Paris, that the athlete from Kerala clinched a long jump bronze to hand India its first-ever World Championship medal. But in her run-up to her leap of glory, Anju Bobby George endured a rather difficult time.
Preparing for the Worlds under the guidance of one of the finest long jumper’s of the generation, Mike Powell, Anju Bobby George spent close to two months in the USA before heading to Europe to compete in a few Grand Prix events before the big one.
While the training with the world record holder and the Grand Prix events were expected to aid the Indian’s preparations, over exertion saw Anju struggle quite a bit.
“Training with Mike (Powell), it was very hectic. Nothing close to what I was used to in India. We would train through the day, under the sun,” the Indian ace told the Olympic Channel.
“So the training, the competitions and then the travel everything put together took a toll on me. My body was not used to such exertion. I was really fatigued and struggled to walk or eat at times.”
Anju and her coach-cum-husband Bobby George chose to make Spain their base for the competitions ahead of the Worlds. But despite their meticulous preparation, the duo faced another challenge in Madrid.
“We were not ready for the heatwave. It was really bad. That added to my troubles as well. I remember, we had three weeks to go for the Worlds, and I was in a really bad situation,” said Anju Bobby George.
“We consulted a few doctors and everyone had the same advice, rest... No more competitions...
“I was broken. The world championships was something that I was preparing for after missing out on the Sydney Olympics and I could barely walk. My body had swollen up like a ball,” Anju remembered.
Things seemed pretty gloomy. But Bobby George had a solution.
While he wanted Anju to compete at the 2003 World Championships, the coach in Bobby decided to keep Anju for a leisure trip to Paris.
“He was like, we have come this far, we should at least check the city out,” recalled Anju Bobby George.
“Though initially, I found it silly, we headed for Paris for what -- according to me -- was a leisure trip.”
Once in the French capital, the couple spent a few days away from the noise which helped Anju Bobby George recuperate just in time for her event at the Paris Worlds.
“I remember, he would ask me to rest and head out. That continued for about two weeks,” the national record holder recollected.
Little did Anju know that Bobby would head out to the competition venue to sort out their accreditation while she rested.
In the two weeks in Paris, the couple went around the city as little as they could; the focus was on getting Anju competition ready. Bobby, meanwhile, continued to push his partner for some warm-up and light jogging.
“I was a little puzzled when he asked me to head out for a jog. I didn’t know that the Worlds dream was still on,” Anju said.
“But that worked for me as it allowed me to concentrate on what I was doing without worrying much about the Worlds or the pressure. For me, I was not competing.”
The coach’s diversionary tactics worked as Anju Bobby George was back in top shape once the women’s long jump got underway at Stade de France.
While the Indian breezed through the initial round, a 6.59-metre jump helping Anju qualify for the World Athletics final, the medal round was not without its share of drama.
With the likes of former champion Fiona May of Italy, local hope and eventual gold medallist Eunice Barber and Russia's Tatyana Kotova in the mix, Anju Bobby George knew she needed something special if she were to clinch a medal.
The Indian started with a quality 6.61 metres jump in the first attempt that saw her climb to the top spot. But fouls in the next two attempts had her in a spot of bother.
“By the time the second jump was done, Eunice Barber and Tatyana Kotova surged ahead... and when the fourth jump was done, Jade Johnson (of Great Britain) was ahead too,” the Indian track and field star remembered.
But trouble was yet to unfold at the Stade de France.
As the women headed back to their approach for the fifth attempt, many, including Anju Bobby George, noticed that the check marks (kept at points alongside the runway to help an athlete get their strides right) were removed.
“I was shaken. These check marks are very crucial. You have one for your start, then another one for your longer strides and so on. It’s really difficult to get a good jump without knowing any of that,” Anju explained.
“First, it was Fiona who broke down realising her checkmark was missing. She somehow gathered herself and went in with her jump. But that was red-flagged and she was eliminated.
“Then when I approached the starting area, my checkmark was missing too. But I had also put a towel at some distance from the approach area marking my start, so that helped,” she clarified.
But then again, throughout the course of the competition, Anju would rearrange her check mark to adjust to the conditions in Paris.
So, even though the towel helped her gauge the starting point from a distance, it was not the exact spot. Anju ended up over striding her run, which she believes cost her some distance on her jump.
“I couldn’t reach my second maker in the strides I wanted to and that had a ripple effect. My knees clashed, it hurt my rhythm and my flight was disturbed and I ended up with a flat jump,” Anju said.
A distraught Anju Bobby George dug her face into the pit in dismay before stepping out, thinking that she had missed an opportunity to land a medal at the World Championships.
But, as fate would have it, Jade Johnson would miscue her final jump handing Anju Bobby George, who had managed 6.70 metres in her fifth attempt, a world championships medal.
To date, Anju remains the only Indian to win a medal in World Athletics.