The first part of Neeraj Chopra’s quest to make history had concluded smoothly enough on Friday morning as he eased into the final of the men’s javelin throw competition after topping his group with a massive 88.77m. Yet even after he went to cool down at the practice field next to the National Athletics Centre in Budapest, Chopra had his eye on the big screen as he looked to see if another bit of history went down. He wanted to see how Kishore Kumar Jena would throw.
Throwing in Group A alongside the Olympic champion, it seemed likely that Manu DP who had thrown a best of 81.31m would qualify for the final of the World Championships. Now Chopra wanted to see if the third Indian in the competition Jena could also do so. “I think he can do it. That would be great. It’s never happened before,” Chopra would say.
By ‘it’ Chopra meant the unprecedented fact of three Indians making the finals of the javelin throw at the World Championships. ‘It’s’ a phenomenon only three other countries – USA, Finland and Germany have achieved in 18 previous editions of the Athletics World Championships.
‘It’ would happen.
Jena, who like Manu was competing on debut, would throw 80.55m. Although neither he nor Manu would meet the automatic qualification standard of 83m, they both had done enough to comfortably make it through to the final 12 – Jena coming through in ninth place and Manu entering the final as the sixth-best thrower in qualification.
While Chopra, the reigning Olympic champion and 2022 Worlds silver medallist was expected to go through, both Jena, 26, and Manu, 22, were competing at their first-ever world championships. This was easily the biggest competition either of them had ever competed in.
As they came into the mixed zone, they drew a bunch of curious questions from international journalists, trying to find out just how India – which was drawing an unhappy reputation as fielding a bunch of underachievers at the World Championships – was punching well above its weight in the throwing event.
Many ways to Javelin
Both Manu and Jena spoke about their unexpected origins in the sport. Both are from parts of the country that aren’t historically throwing hotbeds (although to be fair, before Neeraj, no part of India was). Both are the children of farmers. Manu is from a family of coffee growers in Kuppagoda village near Belur in Karnataka, while Jena is from Kothasahi village, in Odisha’s Puri district where his parents grew rice.
Both surprisingly had a common initial interest in volleyball although they left it for different reasons. Manu discovered the javelin at 15 after being prompted by a school coach. Jena started much later when he was 20, because he was too short for volleyball and needed to pick a sport with which to enter a sports hostel.
For both players, it took a lucky break with the right mentor to discover their potential. Manu had a personal best of 67.28m when former CWG bronze medallist and one of Neeraj Chopra’s earliest coaches Kashinath Naik decided to work with the fellow thrower from Karnataka. Jena, meanwhile, seemed to be stagnating in the 75m range – he had a personal best of 76.41m – when he started working with Samarjit Singh, himself a protege of Naik.
While the course of their specific rise has been distinct, it’s part of an increasing trend in Indian javelin, kickstarted by Chopra. Of the 15 throwers in Indian history to have ever thrown over 80m, nine are actively throwing right now. Jena is the second most recent Indian to enter that 80m club, at the Indian Grand Prix earlier this year. That quantity has its own way of developing quality. “When there are so many good throwers that brings a bit of fear as well,” Jena says. “We know that if we don’t throw, someone else will come and take our place,” Jena would say.
Of the two it is Manu, who at five years younger, nine centimetres taller and with only a marginally smaller personal best (84.35m to Jena’s 84.38m) who might be considered the thrower with the higher ceiling for improvement. However, neither Manu nor Jena would be considered India’s top thrower after Chopra. India had, in fact, qualified an unprecedented four athletes for the World Championships, but Rohit Yadav – who on form was the second-best Indian – missed out after having to undergo surgery for an injured elbow.
While Yadav missed out altogether, both Manu and Jena didn’t have the greatest build-up to the Worlds either. Both flew to Budapest without their personal coaches and Jena almost didn’t fly at all before his visa to Hungary came in with just a few days to spare. Once he was here though he was determined to make the opportunity count. “After I didn’t get a visa, I wasn’t at peace. I had to travel up and down to get it. I missed training for a couple of days. Now I’m feeling a little less bad,” he said.
If Jena isn’t completely satisfied, it’s because he hasn’t yet accomplished the goal he came out to do. “I came in wanting to do a personal best. I did a good throw but it wasn’t a personal best. I think after I did my first throw of 80.55m, I was trying too hard, I was putting in more power and I didn’t stick to my technique. I won’t make that mistake in the final, ” he said.
Manu came in with a similar target as well. “Yesterday I spoke to (Kashinath) coach sir. He was saying just try to make your personal best. Don’t look at what others are doing. Just give your best,” he said.
Ignoring competitors is easier said than done when you have the likes of two-time world champion Anderson Peters, Olympic silver medallist Julius Yego and multiple other throwers with personal bests above 90m competing alongside you. But what was particularly heartening was the fact that the two Indian throwers managed to avoid getting overwhelmed. “I know the standard of the World championships is very high but even these throwers were throwing 80 metres. Even I can throw over 80 meters. It wasn’t something that scared me,” said Jena.
Indeed Manu, who was throwing alongside Anderson Peters in his group, said the experience of watching the Grenadian was underwhelming. “I think he was carrying some injuries. Last year he was really fast but this time, he didn’t have that speed and jerk when throwing,” he said.
Even as they’ve made the final, the two have found their confidence spiking. “ Honsla bohot acha hua hai (my self-belief has increased a lot). After the qualification round, I feel that with another 2 or 3 metres I could even get a medal. I’m going to keep this in mind when I throw in the final. I will try really hard to throw another 3 or 4 meters,” Manu said.
A three-metre improvement doesn’t seem like the easiest task, but Neeraj Chopra believes the two can pull it off. After Manu’s final throw of the evening, Neeraj congratulated the youngster and gave him some advice on where he could improve in the final. “I didn’t want to disturb him (when he was throwing) because he was with another coach and had come up with a different plan. But I felt he wasn’t getting enough height. I felt his line was good in the second throw (81.31m). I think he has a lot more capacity for the final,” Neeraj said.
Manu is hoping for a similar feedback loop when he throws with Neeraj in the final. What he will certainly hope to do is feed off the energy of competing alongside his far more illustrious compatriot. “Before I came to Budapest, (Kashinath) sir told me to use the motivation of throwing alongside Neeraj. This is the first time I’ve competed alongside Neeraj bhai and it helped me a lot,” he said.
Regardless of how the final goes, all three throwers know they are already part of something unique. “This is already a great achievement. I’ve only heard countries like Finland and Germany have three throwers in a World Championships final. Now India has also achieved this,” Neeraj said.
And while one reporter joked that with so many Indians in the final, the World Championships would end up looking not unlike an Indian national championships, Jena quickly disagreed. “You can’t compare it to the national championships. This is such a bigger stage,” he said.
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