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Anju confident

K.P. Mohan

NEW DELHI: Two years ago, at around the same time, Anju George was struggling a little. As she neared the biggest challenge in her career, the World championships in Paris, she seemed to slide alarmingly rather than perk up. Was it over-training? Or was it just the punishing work-load that world record holder Mike Powell had prescribed her?

It was 6.49 at Stockholm on August 5 and 6.28 at Berlin, five days later, after a 6.65 and a couple of 6.50 early on. Yet, when the time came in Paris, the qualifying round on August 28, 2003, to be precise, Anju comfortably made it with a 6.59 and improved upon it in the final for a path-breaking bronze at 6.70 metres. That happened to be her season best and her second best mark ever, behind her then National record of 6.74 metres.

The key lay not just in the stint under Powell but also in a final preparatory phase of about 10 days that she had in Paris under the care of husband and coach Bobby George. Not many, however, gave credit to Bobby's contribution eventually.

Though she has maintained her position in the world rankings, around the top six, since then, Anju has not exactly shown the kind of progression and form that could have been expected of her. And as she gets ready to defend her medal at the World championships in Helsinki, there is some concern, at least among the athletics fraternity at home, that she might not have prepared as well as she had in 2003 or for the Olympics last year when she came sixth with a National mark of 6.83m.

"We know how to peak in time; we will do our season best in the World championships," says Bobby George, a little guarded than usual. That might not mean much since Anju's season best is only 6.47 metres. But then Bobby, who has guided his wife through good times and bad, knows a thing or two about `cycles' and `peaks' and also knows that on the big stage she is a fierce competitor.

Chances

Anju is quiet optimistic, though she admits that she should have done better than what she did at the London Grand Prix (6.41m) and Stockholm Grand Prix (6.47m) last month.

How does she assess her own form compared to the previous years? "I am almost close to my Olympics form," she says, over phone, from Helsinki. That should be good news to every athletics fan at home, though Anju is quick to caution that one should not raise hopes too high.

Realistically, she should be in with a chance to get a medal, maybe the bronze yet again. If Olympic champion Tatyana Lebedeva skips long jump to focus on triple jump, then the other two Russian medallists at the Athens Games, Irina Simagina, and Tatyana Kotova should be the top contenders for the gold. If Lebedeva, who has been named in the Russian team for long jump, does not compete, Oksana Udmurtova, 23, a relative newcomer who has a 6.86 to her name this season, would be the Russian choice.

The two Americans, Grace Upshaw and Tianna Madison along with Spaniard Concepcion Montaner and Jamaican Elva Goulbourne should pose the closest challenge to Anju. Italian Fiona May, a two-time world champion, is always a contender though at 35 she might be past her prime.

There is no confirmation yet about world heptathlon champion Carolina Kluft of Sweden competing in the long jump event. She pulled out of the Stockholm Grand Prix apparently because of an injury. The reigning world champion, Eunice Barber of France has not shown much form in the individual event this season, though she is a strong contender in heptathlon.

Preparations

"The preparations have been satisfactory. Anju has clocked the best for her final take-off speed in recent weeks. She has jumped 6.75 in training, but a fever in London and the wet and cold conditions in Stockholm did not really help," said Bobby. "But there are still days left... "

Rain and cold had always hampered Anju. She has to hope that it would be bright and sunny on August 9 when she competes in the qualifying round and dry and brighter still the next evening when the final is scheduled. The sun never seems to set in Helsinki of course.

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