After a muscle strain in early May, Neeraj Chopra returned to competition at the Lausanne Diamond League a couple of days ago. Although he wasn’t pushing himself on his return to the field, the Olympic champion shrugged off the unexpected break in the middle of his competition season and difficult conditions in Lausanne to finish first in a strong field.
At a press conference on Monday organised by SAI (Sports Authority of India), Chopra spoke about the challenges of returning from his injury scare, his goals for the rest of the season, how he manages to stay consistent and whether he feels pressure chasing a 90m throw.
Q. What was the challenge of competing in Lausanne?
Most of the top competitions are in Europe. The problem we face is when we go from hot conditions to cold ones. We are used to the heat. I’ve stayed and trained for so long in Patiala. Tokyo was hot so I didn’t have a problem there. But we (Indians) do have an issue in cold conditions. It’s different for Europeans who are used to this. In Lausanne, I was feeling cold even while I was wearing a jacket. It wasn’t easy to stay warmed up. On the other hand, the European athletes were in their shorts. It’s very different. Asia is challenging for them. In such conditions, I usually put on a jacket and do some activity so that I can stay warmed up.
Q. You were competing in Lausanne after nearly two months because of your injury scare. What were the differences?
There was a difference both physically and mentally. I was really physically fit at the Doha Diamond League. But after the muscle strain, the focus was on injury and rehabilitation. Because of that, my fitness was a little less than what it was. That affected me mentally as well. If you have a problem in the middle of the season, you think ‘how will I manage this? Will I be able to return before the season is over?’.
When I started, in my mind, I was thinking about my injury. There was a big question mark on whether I could push as hard as I wanted. I had a couple of sessions before the competition and I was pushing hard. But it was cold and raining (in Lausanne). I was thinking, whether I could push myself or not. For the first 2-3 throws I wasn’t doing that. I was a little slow. After that, I felt that I could do it. I got a little focused and warmed up. I spoke to the coach and he said I needed to speed up. After that, I started a bit further back on the runway and was able to get that throw.
The main target in the Diamond League is to get points to qualify for the Diamond League finals. If I was in the Worlds or Asian Games, I would probably have pushed myself a little bit more.
Q. How were you feeling physically before the competition?
I think my fat might have increased. It must have gone up 1-2 kg. (Because of the muscle strain) my training wasn’t that intense although my diet was the same. I was running a little slow but that wasn’t because I was more bulky. I was slow because of my mind. I could have been faster but I only pushed myself how much I felt I could handle. You can run as fast as you want but you have to block it. If you don’t block well you could get injured. My coach has done the research and when a javelin thrower blocks you load nearly 10 times your body weight on your foot for that instant. You need to know how to control your speed. I was running a little slower so that I could control my block. When I was training I was doing lifting and jumps but not doing it as much when I was fully fit. But it’s ok. We finished the competition and now we will work hard for the world championships.
Q. Are you thinking about getting to the 90m mark?
Whether I get that 90m throw depends on the right time and conditions. I missed a few tournaments because of my recovery. The weather was good in these tournaments. If I had taken part in these tournaments, I think I might have had a chance of getting to that 90m mark. In Lausanne, the conditions were not so good. It was cold and raining. With respect to those conditions, my throw was good. Right now we have some big competition. We have the Worlds and the Asian Games. I still have time to prepare for those. There’s no real pressure (to get to 90m). The only thing I think of is to throw as best as I can.
Q. You normally get your big throw early in the competition but at Lausanne, your best throw came towards the end.
It’s not planned (to throw really well in the first attempt). In my mind, I want to give 100 per cent in each throw. But I can’t throw 89m all the time. That number will go up and down. Some throws will go far, some less. My first throw usually goes well. But if by chance it doesn’t go, I always say I have to keep myself ready until the last throw. I have that belief that until the last throw, I still have the ability to make a good throw. Karna hi hai, chahe jo ho jaye. (I have to make a good throw no matter what).
That wasn’t always the case. Many years ago, when I didn’t have that much experience I couldn’t do it, but now it’s not the case. I keep trying from the first throw to keep throwing as hard as I can.
My strategy is always just to throw as far as I can. It’s not that I was waiting till the fifth throw. It’s always that I have to warm up. There’s no real strategy (on deciding which throw to put effort into). It’s not like in long distances where there is strategy because the athletes can block each other. In our event, you just have to do your best. You have to keep yourself positive. The rest depends on the competition. In my first throw in Lausanne, I purposely made a foul because I wanted a good throw. I thought I had made a 79-80m throw. But I think I did that because, in my mind, I had seen the 85m line as the 80m one.
If the first throw is good, you feel positive and the other competitors feel some pressure. I always try to get a good first throw. But if it doesn’t go, you have to try your best till the end. It wasn’t just me, both Julian Weber and Jakub (Vladech) threw very well in their final throw. Again it doesn’t mean that just because I throw a big throw, I will have to win. In (last year’s) Stockholm Diamond League, I threw 89 meters and then (Anderson) Peters threw 90m. You have to stay prepared till the last throw. Last throw tak khel badal sakta hai. (the event can change even in the last throw).
It’s true that I usually have a very good first throw but there have been times when I have done well in the last throws as well. I was nowhere in the competition at the (2017) Asian Championships until the final throw where I managed to win. I want to say there’s no difference between the first and last throws. I keep myself ready till the last throw.
The thing is to be consistent in training. I did get some pressure (at Lausanne where Weber went into the early lead). I won’t say I was completely chill. Jakub and Weber had thrown well and there were other good throwers as well. No one knows who will throw a big throw. I was trying to as well but I was not getting the throw. But it’s always there in my mind that I have to throw at least this much. We don’t change too much in workouts. We just try to improve in whatever we are doing. My body has adapted to my technique. The main thing is we need to stay fit and not change technique. When we try to change technique that’s where the injury happens. I just want to stay consistent. If you are, you don’t lose hope until the last throw.
Q. Would injury management be one of your main targets for this season?
At the start of the season, training was going well and I was injury free. But staying free from injury is not in the athlete’s hands. Once that happens, it takes time to recover. TOPS, SAI and the Federation have supported me a lot. It also helps that I have a good team. We got to speak to the doctor and I was able to take advice and start working on it immediately. The only thing I have to take care of is injury. If that happens, everything else will go smoothly.
We are doing a lot of exercises, especially for rehabilitation. Small exercises are important. Athletes don’t like it compared to the big lifts, but it’s important. These boring exercises aren’t fun. I do it with (physio) Ishaan and it’s important so that I can stay away from injury. I just want to be able to give my 100 per cent effort at the World Championships. If I am 100 per cent physically, then mentally I will be at 100 per cent as well.
Q. What are your goals in preparation for the World Championships?
The plan is to be as fresh as possible for Worlds. I think I already have enough points to qualify for the World Diamond League Finals. This time the rule is the best six will compete in the diamond league finals. I think I have 16 points (based on two wins at Doha and Lausanne)which is enough. But in case I feel I am injury free, I might take part in another. It’s important to be injury free but I have to work on my fitness, especially before the world championships. I need to give myself time to prepare. I had to travel a bit because of the injury and because of that, I had to reduce the amount of training I did. Now I have to push myself. I had focussed on the injury and now have to focus on my training.
After the World Championships, we have tournaments every 15 days. We have the Diamond League in Zurich, then the Diamond League finals and then the Asian Games. We have to see how we compete in those events.
Right now I will focus on getting properly fit for Budapest. There’s no pressure of doing well at the Diamond League final. If I prepare well for Budapest, my fitness will last me for a long time. We will be mentally strong not just there (Worlds) but for the remainder of the season as well. At least for one month, we can push with that fitness. If I keep competing before that my fitness will be down and won’t be able to compete only. I’ve not decided whether to take part in the Monaco Diamond League. We have 20 days time to decide. If we feel fitness is good we will go but right now it seems I will go to worlds directly. If we prepare for that, my injury and physical fitness will improve.
Q. Are you satisfied with your performance in Lausanne?
Conditions were tough in both the competitions I’ve taken part in this year. In Doha, there was a headwind which made it hard to run in and also didn’t let the javelin fly so far. When I took the first position it felt good. When you win the first position when competing with the world’s best it is always good. It doesn’t matter if you have thrown an 89m or 85m throw. Everyone is pushing hard and if you are first there, it is good.
I still think I need to get fitter before the World Championships. I need to work more. I am satisfied with my throws but not happy. But when I consider the conditions, the fact that I was making a comeback and my mindset, then on that basis it was a good performance.
I might not have got the 90m throw but for that, you need the right time and I know it will come somewhere. There’s no pressure on it. It’s a big thing just to win when competing against these athletes. The (90m) throw will come. It’s more important to win. That is the target. Where the conditions are good and I have been able to work on my fitness, then it will come.
I’m focused on getting my best. I was successful in 2021 and 2022. We did a new national record in the Patiala Grand Prix (in 2021). I had a great season in 2022 because in each competition, with the exception of the Kuortane Games, I got better. I also got two National records that year. This time also, things are going well. The preparation is better but I am waiting for better conditions. I think I need to work more on fitness and getting mentally strong. Once that comes, I’ll be able to push myself more.
Q. What do you do on your off days?
If I have an off day in competition, that is usually something you expect to get. But it is also important to have some off time during training. When you train so much, you also need to rest. Coaches plan all the time. I like that rest. After the Olympics in 2021 somewhere, I think I rested too much. That was mentally hard because I don’t like to spend time without training. It’s ok to rest for a maximum of a week but after that you just become unfit. I eat too much and my weight goes up. I keep trying to do some running etc. This season is ending a little late. I don’t think I will get too many chances to rest. We have just a few months before the start of the new season and the Paris Olympics. So we won’t rest too much this time.
It’s true that this season will go on until quite late in the year but there are around 8-9 months for Paris. It’s not a problem. But we can’t have holidays. We have to start training quickly and prepare for Paris. We have to forget holidays and focus on fitness.
Q. How do you manage the time when you aren’t able to compete? Does it put you under pressure?
When there is no tournament there is honestly no pressure. Training is the most important and the hardest part. Sometimes the coach’s training is so hard we feel aaj fas gaye (today we have had it). Competition is still a little easy because as you get closer to it, you reduce how much you train. It gets lighter and you are focussing mostly on speed. But the time before that is khatarnak (dangerous). You have to train really hard. The real pressure comes when we have to complete our training. Since I was small, I always felt guilty even if I missed one training session because of some minor excuse. That was my mindset. If I had an injury or whatever it’s a genuine reason. But when I was young and I didn’t train because I wanted to sleep a little more or because it was raining or cold, then that would always bother me. I used to feel I did something wrong until I could take part in the next training session and do that well. My mindset is that I don’t get proper sleep unless my training is good. I don’t get shanti (peace) the whole day. That thing is natural. There are many days where we don’t want to go or are tired but we have to go because that is our job. Until we take our job seriously you won’t be best at your job.
Q. How important is it to stay confident when competing against the best?
When we throw, I feel I will at least throw at least to a certain level. I have to do it. That confidence is important. I’m competing against the world’s best throwers, many of whom have done 90m. But in those conditions, if they can’t throw, then you can understand how challenging it is. But I have that confidence that I can throw well in even those conditions.
That confidence comes from training and fitness. If your fitness is low then nothing happens. At the World Championships last year I did well in 4th throw but I got that groin injury right after. I tried to throw hard on those last two throws. I was running and it was hurting as I came in. I didn’t have the strength in the muscle to throw well. You need that combination of both mind and body.
Q. You have all the major medals in the world. How do you set your next goals?
What’s most important for me is that I don’t think I have to win every competition or get to 90 meters. That just puts pressure. I just think I have to give my 100 per cent. Once I am in the competition, I think I have to fight. But when I am training, I only think about how to give my best. Right now I don’t have a gold medal at the World Championships. This time I will work as hard as it takes so I can get that gold. If I am 100 per cent physically fit, I won’t be thinking about whether I can push myself or not. The medal will be decided there but I am motivated to give my best. I have to keep trying my best.
Q. Are you thinking about a potential clash with Pakistan CWG champion Arshad Nadeem at the Asian Games?
The Pakistan angle always comes up! Arshad is a good thrower. If he is there, there’s nothing special that I’m going to be competing with him. I will try my best at the Asian Games. He has had an injury, hopefully, he is better. Only when we push each other will we get better. It doesn’t matter which competition I am in, I will always push hard. There’s no pressure either of competing with any athlete. I will always give my best.
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