Neeraj Chopra drew the curtains on his 2022 season on Thursday night at Zurich’s Weltklasse, Letzigrund, becoming the first Indian athlete ever to win the Diamond League Final. Chopra’s season this year began late, thanks to the extended celebrations of winning Olympic gold in Tokyo. Despite that less than ideal start, the 24-year-old carried on the milestone-setting form that saw him create history last year.
Competing in six competitions, beginning with the Paavo Nurmi Games in June, Chopra finished the season with a silver at the World Athletics Championships and the number one spot at the season-ender in Zurich.
Not only did Chopra come up with an 89.94m effort at the Stockholm Diamond League - the fourth best throw of the year by any athlete - his consistency has been remarkable too. His 86.69m throw that came at a rain-swept Kuortane Games was the best ‘worst performance’ by any javelin thrower this season. This year, six of Chopra's throws made it to the top 20, the same as World champion Anderson Peters. It underlined the remarkable consistency Neeraj attained despite suffering a groin injury at the Worlds in Eugene, which forced him to pull out of the Commonwealth Games.
As he signed off the season with a bang, Chopra planned to take a much-needed break to take his family and friends to Switzerland for a long-pending vacation. This will mean he is unlikely to compete at the National Games in Gujarat later this month. At a press conference on Friday, Chopra addressed that issue. He also spoke not just about how he approached the season but about how his mind was already thinking of the season to come.
Why are you finishing the season early?
This (Zurich Diamond League final) was the last competition according to our planning. The National Games dates were announced just now. The coach said I need to rest because I just recovered from a groin injury. If I train and compete more it could be risky. So I would like to focus on the next season. After (my vacation) I will be coming home to begin my rehabilitation programme. The next two years are important as we have the Asian Games, Asian Championships, and World Championships. The first step is to do well in the next year. That’s where the focus will be. And after that, we have the 2024 Olympics.
What are your targets for the off-season?
Last year going into the off-season after winning the Olympic gold was a new experience for me. It was difficult to balance all my commitments, but I have learned now how to balance things. Commercial interests are important. So from last year, I have learned to manage my commercial requirements and training because I don't want any disturbance in my training schedule. Last time I put on a lot of weight because I rested too long and ate too much. This time, I hope I won’t gain so much weight. I will get back to training at the earliest.
What was your biggest challenge this season?
The challenge at the start of the season was to get my fitness back since I started late because of all the celebrations after the Olympics. I had less time so it was about using that time well. I focused on getting the strength back. But I worked a lot on technique. I feel technically I was a lot better. In the past, I was putting a lot of effort into my throws. Half of it was wasted. I wasn’t able to do as much fitness work as I used to do in the past. But the work I did on my technique helped a lot.
What is the problem with expectations?
Right now a lot of people are following athletics which is good but everyone wants gold. That is a problem. People need to understand that athletics is a sport where there are so many countries that compete and so many athletes who take part. If people understood that aspect, they would know how hard it is to win gold. After I got a silver at the World Championships, I saw in a lot of places that people were saying ‘what happened to Neeraj? He has just got a silver! That is something we need to change. It is a big thing to compete at this level. We need to support the guys who compete at this level. We need to support the guys who lose as well. If you don’t do that, you put even more pressure and that isn’t helpful. If I think of just the gold that will put a lot of pressure. I deal with it by just focusing on just my performance.
What is your mindset before a competition?
When I warm up before the competition or even enter into the ground, I enter the zone automatically. I don’t have to do anything because I’ve competed in many competitions for so long. It’s not like a manual mode that I have to do. It is in automatic mode. I don’t think that there are some competitions where I have to push myself less than others. I don’t have gears like that. There’s just one gear. Forward gear. And that’s how you give 100 per cent. Athletics is a game where you have to go and give your best. There are other athletes but you are competing with yourself. You are always trying to give your best.
On whether his celebration without seeing where his throw lands is a sign of confidence.
It’s not that I’m celebrating thinking that I’ve already won the event. That is just josh (exuberance). When the throw leaves the hand, you know its a good throw. It’s not a celebration that I’ve won. It’s a throw to celebrate that it’s a good throw and the josh of the moment.
On not being worried despite starting the competition in Zurich with a foul.
My aim is to try and do well from the first throw itself but yesterday, the javelin slipped from my hands. It didn’t go well so I stepped across the line and fouled the attempt. But I wasn’t worried about the foul. I knew that I was throwing well in the warm ups so I knew it will go well. My consistency was quite good. I had two throws of 88m, and one 86m. I wasn’t satisfied with 88.4m either. I was still trying to throw well until the final throw of the competition. The goal is to keep focus until the last throw of the competition. But it was the last competition for the season so I was a little tired.
On the fitness issues towards the end of the season and the injury that caused him to skip the CWG.
At the World Championships, I didn’t suffer an injury as much as feel a strain in my groin. I spoke to the coach and phsyio. It took a couple of days to make that decision (to skip the Commonwealth Games). It was important to make the decision quickly because the Commonwealth Games was just about to happen. I knew I had time to prepare for the Lausanne Diamond League. I wasn’t feeling 100 percent there either. I had to put strapping in that competition too. At Zurich I knew that it was my last competition of the season. The Diamond League final was an important tournament for me and there were good athletes there too. So I did push myself a little bit. But it gets hard. It’s hard to maintain your fitness over a long season. Your body starts to break down because of all the travel and the fact that your diet isn’t perfect. You start to recover a little slower too. Thakawat aa chuki thi, (I had started feeling a little tired)
How it felt on missing out on the CWG?
IT was weird because it was a top competition for me. Along with the Diamond League and World Championships the Commonwealth Games was a major competition of the year for me. I did well at the worlds and felt I would do well at the CWG also. It felt strange that I couldn’t compete at CWG when other athletes were competing and doing well. But I’m happy to compete again at the end of the season. I pushed myself a little in the rehab which is why I was able to compete. I was happy with how my season season went and that I was consistent this season.
On not being able to cross the 90m barrier.
I’m not disappointing at all to miss (a 90m throw). There’s no pressure of 90m. It’s a magical mark but whether you get it depends on how you handle yourself in that moment at that competition. It’s a barrier but what should you do if you do 90 and still lose? Then you start thinking maybe I should get to 93m. The most important is to win. I am happy with how consistent I was this season. Kaafi consistent thi iss season. (I was very consistent this season)’m not disappointed. I’m happy with how I played and how I was able to come back from injury.
What’s more important? To win a Diamond league with a throw of 88.44m or win a silver (at Stockholm) with a throw of 89.94m
Normally. I think the position you finish in is more important. But that’s why I like the diamond league from the start because it’s a world class competition. When you are in the field with invariably an elite group of athletes, and you have best or 2nd best throw among them, that is a bigger marker of the level than what the measurement says. Athletes work with the goal that they have to push themselves and get a medal. I also enjoy working and training and putting in hard work. That’s why I consider the Diamond league a big trophy. So I’m happy I was able to get that. I want to get all the big medals. When I get to the final it was a big achievement in 2017. I came 4th in 2018. wth time I got more experience and technically and physically stronger. All that helped. There is a sense of belief that with this much fitness I can throw this much. I also want to improve my techniques and do my personal best.
What would you like to see in the future?
I’d like to see more Indians compete at the Diamond League. These days a lot of our athletes reached the final of major competitions. When our athletes go now, it is like they are going to compete for a medal. We feel like a mental barrier is opening that we can go and beat the top players. I hope the AFI supports our athletes as much as possible and helps them go out and compete. I hope we can get a Mondo track built as well. I feel good when an Indian team comes. At the Diamond League, there are other countries from where a lot of players come. I wish there was someone else from my country and I could watch them and other Indians could watch them as well. I’d like to see them not just at the Diamond league but at the continental gold events also. When they go to worlds, they have that experience as well. I Request the federation that our athletes are world class if they go out. As much as they can, let them take part in international competitions with world class athletes. I felt weird that i was the only one from India here. Hope that in the future, more Indians also compete here.