When he managed a throw of 81.89m at the North East University Games held in Bhubaneshwar last week, javelin thrower Vikrant Malik joined an exclusive group of Indian athletes. His effort, which won him a gold medal, made him the latest Indian entrant in the 80m club – the mark which sets apart elite throwers from the merely good.
Malik is the fourth Indian this year to breach that benchmark (after Rohit Yadav, DP Manu, and Yashvir Singh) and the 10th overall in a list that is headed by Olympic champion Neeraj Chopra. “It is something I have been chasing for the last eight years. It is something that for so many years I thought was out of my reach and something so many people thought I would not be able to achieve,” Malik says.
A lot of people would have reason to doubt Malik. At only 5 feet 8 inches and weighing 75 kilograms, he is perhaps the smallest of the Indian bunch to have thrown over 80m. He is also someone who has struggled tremendously with injuries to his throwing arm and back, which has resulted in him missing several years of his career. And at 26 years old, he is the oldest to enter the 80m club for the first time.
“I should have crossed 80 metres before but I have had a lot of injuries. I have constantly been dealing with back injuries and tennis elbow. I have thrown 81 metres but I have also been in a position where I could not even lift my hand to brush my teeth,” he says. Indeed, 2022 is the first time that Malik has been able to compete over a complete season since 2014 when he competed in the senior category for the first time.
Back in 2014, as an 18-year-old, he was seen as a promising javelin prospect. Growing up in the village of Ugra Kheri in Haryana’s Panipat district (incidentally not too far from Neeraj Chopra’s village of Khandra), he had taken to the javelin throw at the insistence of his father, an army man who had played the sport in his youth. “I used to play volleyball in my village but that is a sport where you have to be tall to have any success. The javelin throw is a sport where being tall helps, but even if you are not, you can get by if you have good shoulder strength and speed. My father felt that I had a fast throwing action in my shoulder so he encouraged me to try the javelin. As I trained in it, I started enjoying it as well,” recalls Malik.
But even as he started to progress, he would find himself facing serious setbacks. The first one came shortly after recording a throw of 66.54m and taking ninth place in his first national-level competition - the junior Federation Cup in Chennai in 2014.
Malik developed a condition known colloquially as tennis elbow that occurs when the tendons connecting the forearm to the elbow in the throwing arm are damaged due to overuse. That injury kept him out for three years.
“I picked up the injury because I was putting too much strain on my elbow when throwing. Since I am not as big and strong as other javelin throwers, I have to put a lot of force on my elbow. I have only ever trained with my father so our knowledge of technique was not the best. When I got hurt, I just kept throwing and made the injury worse. When I went to a doctor, he told me I would either have to get surgery to remove the tendon or I’d have to quit the sport,” he says.
Malik says he visited half a dozen doctors who gave him the same grim options before finding a sports physiotherapist who gave a different opinion. “It took me one year of therapy before I could recover any feeling in the elbow. At that time I could not even bend my elbow to brush my teeth. There were times that I thought about doing something else. I thought of completing my studies but I always felt I had to return to the javelin throw,” he says.
Recovery was slow, he admits, “When I started throwing again, I was throwing just 25-30 meters. But I kept pushing myself and slowly I was able to get back to where I was before I got injured,” he says. Malik looked to be finding his groove once again, winning a silver medal at the 2018 Inter-University championships. But just like before, the same injury returned.
“At the Federation Cup in March of 2019, I felt the same tennis elbow injury come back and then I picked up a back strain as well. That was probably the toughest time for me. A lot of people told me that it was time to quit. At that time, I also thought the same. “ Depression me tha. 8-9 saal ki mehnat ka kya faida nikla?’ (I was depressed because what did I have to show for devoting 8-9 years of my life),” he recalls thinking.
Malik says it was his father Rajender who convinced him to persist. “He had been an athlete himself and he too had had to give up his javelin throw career because of injury. So he told me not to worry about anything else but just think about recovering and training again,” he says.
Physiotherapy and the Covid outbreak meant Malik was only able to return to competition at the start of the 2022 season. But the extended break which gave him plenty of time to train seems to have done him good. He won gold at the Inter-University athletics championships in January this year with a personal best of 77.82m. “This was the first season since 2014 that I had been able to prepare well,” he says.
But Malik says his injury troubles have not completely gone away. “No matter what I do the pain in my elbow never goes away. I have some good training days when there’s less pain and there are days when it is nearly impossible for me to throw. Even if I’m not throwing, when it gets very cold in winter, that makes the pain worse,” he says.
Malik was in pain even during the North East University Games. “I was able to make my first throw and then my elbow was hurting so much that I had to opt out of the next two throws. I crossed 80m in my fourth throw and then didn’t take my fifth and sixth throws because I was feeling really uncomfortable,” he says.
All that pain he now says has been worth it. “It’s given me the confidence that I can do even better. I did a lot of things right this season and I know I can work even harder and improve next year. I have the Federation Cup in March which will be a very important qualification event for the Asian Games. I really want to do well at that competition,” he says.
2023, Malik says, will be a critical year for him. Since he could not compete over the last eight years, Malik has also been unable to apply for jobs through sports quota that would have given him a measure of independence. “It was my dream to join the army like my father but now I’m too old for that. I still don’t have a job. Even to this day I’m dependent on my father for all my financial needs. Every month my expenses in training, diet and travel for competitions comes to at least 50,000 a month,” he says. All that only adds to the pressure he feels when he competes but Malik is not backing down any time soon.
“In the past, there were times when I would feel a bit of doubt over my choice to be a javelin thrower. But now I am very determined that I will not give up until I have accomplished my goal. ‘ Ek lagaav sa ho gaya hai. Desh ke liye kuch kar ke jaana hai. (I have become attached to this game now. Before I quit I want to do something for the country),” Malik signs off.
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